Little Billy Keeton was a hellraiser. Just ask him and he can tell you some stories. Like the time he threw the brick in the paint bucket, splattering his uncle. Or the many dents his BB gun made in his mother’s stove.
It’s no surprise, then, that Keeton has penned a book, A Boy Called Combustion: Growing Up In 1940’s Mississippi, tying together 31 linked stories and photos from early childhood to high school. What may surprise you is that he’s now a respected anesthesiologist and pain management specialist in Georgia – and grandson to Fondren’s namesake, the late D.F. Fondren.
“The collection tells of a rather mischievous child (nicknamed “Combustion”) who got into all sorts of scrapes and did all sorts of things,” Dr. Keeton said by phone from Atlanta.Â “These are stories told to a million others (by family members) over the years, and they’ve always been well received.” Dr. Keeton said his inspiration came after reading the Robert Fulgham’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. “I was moved by his stories and started writing my own.”
Dr. Keeton, a first time writer, was born in 1940 in Jackson and was raised in Fondren. He fondly remembers Sundays at his grandparents’, the “Big House” they called it, for a family lunch. Keeton lived in the Big House from 1947-53 and called it “quite a place.”
It was around lunchtime one Sunday that one of his book’s stories takes place. Dr. Keeton and his cousin, Ann, decided to play in the family car, his grandfather’s 1935 Plymouth (affectionately known as Flatfoot) when the car began to roll and things got out of control:
“At the sound of the crash, pandemonium spread rapidly throughout the Big House. Within seconds, it seemed like every adult that Ann and I had ever known was screaming, running toward us, and desperately trying to get the doors of the car open. They were all so relieved that neither of us was injured that we were not punished. Quite the contrary. Instead, Lee (the family’s cook) and the women admonished the men, who had stood idly by while two innocent (a word that was seldom used to describe me) children got into the car unsupervised. I heard Lee say “Lawd, you gotta watch that Billy ever second, if ’n you ’spect this house ta still be standin’! I love that chile, an’ he don’t mean no harm, honest he don’t, but dey ain’t nuttin’ he can’t tore up in less ’an a minute, if’n he ain’t watched ever second!”
As the head of the family, Granddaddy had the last word. “The children are alright, the car looks okay, and the garage can be fixed, so let’s eat,” he finally said. Everyone agreed, so we all filed into the dining room.”
The neighborhood surrounding his family’s home and his grandfather’s grocery store was a simpler place back then. At five, Dr. Keeton would walk to The Pix Theater on Saturdays for a double feature or to the hardware store on State Street, but there was one place he couldn’t go. “My parents wouldn’t let me go to Walker’s Drive-In because they thought it was a beer joint,” he laughs, speaking about the one of the neighborhood’s favorite and now casual fine dining establishments. “They had a jukebox back in those days.”
When asked about what his grandfather might say about modern day Fondren, Dr. Keeton said his grandfather would be thrilled. “I think he’d be pleased by how much people love living there, as well as surprised by the size and complexity of modern-day Jackson.”
Dr. Keeton’s former elementary school, Duling, contains a concert hall and restaurant. In his childhood, there was one part of the school that was all too familiar. “When they told me they were redoing Duling, I thought I should get first dibs on principal’s office since I spent so much time there,” he chuckled.
Reading the book Combustion may make you think Dr. Keeton has a fantastic imagination, but he assures, his stories aren’t fiction. He explained, “As my cousin Dave Montgomery said to his niece Jennifer, ‘I can assure you, all of these stories are absolutely true and he didn’t even tell some of the worst ones!’ And as my cousin Ken Goodrich wrote in his foreword to the book (they decided to call it the “Forewarning,” which seemed more apt), ‘You just can’t make this stuff up.'”
Get your copy of A Boy Called Combustion at billkeeton.com. A future book signing is planned back in Keeton’s former stomping grounds, Fondren.