Everything was perfect for a world record: the gusty wind, the torrid sun, the condition of the athlete. Jeff "Faucet Man" Barber had been in intense training for more than a month. The brown stains on his teeth attested to his dedication.
He had developed a new back motion that added more body English to his delivery. Perhaps, he thought, it was a breakthrough that tobacco spitting had been waiting for, the equivalent to the jump shot in basketball or the curve ball in baseball.
But Barber faltered in early competition at the National Tobacco Spitting Championship here. He lost the accuracy title to arch-rival Mark Wilks, a beefy warehouseman from Columbia, Miss. It was a technical problem, Barber said later. He's formed the cud of tobacco in his jaw incorrectly, so when he spat it came out like birdshot.
It wouldn't happen again.
Barber was as nervous as an Olympic sprinter by the time men's distance competition opened. It began badly. Kenneth Williams, who at 37 is old for a competitive spitter, got off a superb shot, just over 30 feet, nearly a world record. $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE
Barber's record came on his first try. He used the classic open stance, two-plucker style favored by many world-class spitters. In this style the spitter stands with his feet parallel to the firing line, like a basketball player shooting free throws. Two fingers are held in a V-shape to his lips to direct the blast. (The other favorite style is the rocker style, for which one foot is placed behind the other.)
Barber, 19, was all concentration. His wad of Levi Garrett tobacco rested rightly in his right cheek. His eyes narrowed as he stared down the spitting ramp, past the crowd and the television cameras, to the roof of Billy Joe Crompton's log cabin. Faucet Man's head reared back, his 190 pounds uncoiled. A streak of brown shot through the air.
It was, everyone agreed, an incredible spit. It traveled 31 feet 9 1/2 inches, a new world record. A second shot went even farther, 35 feet but didn't count because he stepped over the firing line.
Jeff Barber of Ocean Springs, Miss., had pushed the bounds of man's limits a little further. He had earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records. And he was a hero in the piney woods country, where men judge men harshly.
"I hope you'll remember this for a long time," the man from Chattanooga Chew, a new tobacco, said as he presented Barber one of the four tropies - a statuette and three shiny spitonons - he earned. (He also got three cases of chewing tobacco.) "People will be shooting at your record for a long time. I don't know if they will ever beat it."
The National Tobacco Spitting championships have been held in this tiny Mississippi town, about 45 miles southeast of Jackson, for the last 25 years. It is a grand occasion that attracts thousands from miles around. There is a watermelon-eating contest, a greased pole climb, sack racing, and, in a period of four hours, more politics than most people see in a lifetime.
Hardly a politician in the state dares miss it. "This is one of the two or three must events on every politician's calendar," said William Winter, a candidate for governor. "No serious candidate for statewide office can afford to miss this or the Neshoba County Fair next week."
The politicians don't spit. They just talk. "I slipped over and practiced for a while one year," U.S. Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.) said. "But I was afraid that I would spit my bridge (false teeth) out."
The oratory was loud and long Saturday. And almost as hot as the 97-degree temperature. Seven candidates for governor showed up, as did more candidates for lesser office than you'd care to spit at.
Everyone preached about "new leadership," provided they were that leadership. Everyone promised to get rid of corruption, build more highways and bring more jobs to Mississippi. Everyone said you couldn't believe the other guy.
Hardly anyone did. "We don't ever tell the truth here," one old-timer said. "It's too awful to hear."
Rep. Montgomery did get a rise when he promised to bring some folks down from Washington next year. "As I understand it, to be a tobacco spitter, you have to be windy and full of hot air," he said. "I think some of my colleagues in Washington qualify with both. They ought to do right well in the distance spit."
"I'm feeling fairly ill now, very nauseous really," Katherine Cartwell of London, England, said as she leaned against the spitting ramp. "I'm turning the color (green) of my T-shirt."
Cartwell was part of a British camera crew filming the big event. Although she had never chewed tobacco before Saturday, she entered the women's distance competition. "In England nobody chews tobacco," she said. "They snort some stuff, but they don't chew. I wanted to make history."
It tasted terrible, Cartwell said. "It's like chewing a cigarette that is soaked in molasses all day." She finished second. Actually, there were only two contestants. The winner was Marlene Graham, a chunky teen-ager in a football jersey who began chewing when she was 10.
She was worried what her mother would say when she found she had entered the contest. "She won't like it at all," she said. "She'll yell at me for being a tomboy and tell me to grow up." Her grandfather, Howard Knotts, watched the tense competition. He has chewed tobacco for almost a half century, and when his granddaughter won, tears of pride dripped down his cheek.
"Tell you one thing," Knotts said. "Tobacco is good for worming dogs. Put it in their food. They eat it like nothing you ever saw."
Like any world-class competition, the national tobacco-spitting contest is governed by time-tested rules. Judges carry mops and waer long white aprons supplied by the Beechnut Tobacco Co.
Four rules are essential for the novice spectator to understand the competition. Taken from the offical rule-book, they are:
1) The choice of delivery will be left up to the individual spitter. He may use the two-finger pluker, an open stance, or simply spit between the teeth if he is so equipped. However, the propulsion must originate from a spitting action; no hawking or blowing is allowed.
2) The juice must be the product of chewing tobacco approved by the judges. No snuff, dilutants, alterants or any other pollutants will be permitted. Violators of this rule will be punished by requiring them to swallow their cud.
3) Body English is permissible insofar as the momentum does not carry the spitter across the firing line.
4) (Applied primarily to accuracy competition) In the case of separation, the position nearest the bull's-eye the size of a dime or greater is in competition.
According to John Raymond Tullos, who won both accuracy and distance national crowns in one year and ranks among the greatest tobacco spitters of all time, there are several trade secrets to the art of championship spitting.
First, you want to have the right amount of tobacco juice. It has to have the right consistency of tobacco and saliva. Then you have to make sure there are no loose leaves in it. They could get caught between your teeth and ruin a good spit. Fourth is rhythm and timing, the ability to let go with the delivery at just the right moment.
Tullos, a local lawyer, has dropped out of championship competition. "It got too serious," he said. "These young boys practice. Of course, I chew regularly. But I only spit for fun."
Like every small town in America, Raleigh, the county seat of Smith County, is concerned about its image. People still remember when Collier's Magazine came down here a generation ago and did a story on the bloody Sullivan family feud, which had flared for decades. "Historically, Smith County is one of the roughest counties in the state," said one local businessman.
Yet there were only a handful of lawmen on hand at the contest Saturday, and about 4,000 spectators, who paid $2 each. There wasn't a single theft or mugging.
"We're not the rednecks that the world would make us out to be," said W. L. Thompson, chairman of the Bank of Raleigh. "This here boy has a PhD in pharmacology from the University of Mississippi. That guy you were talking to over there is a millionaire.
"People come here from all over the state," he added. "In the South, everyone is basically a country person no matter where he lives. This gives everyone a chance to let their hair down." CAPTION: Picture 1, Jeff Barber, by Ray Wong for The Washington Post; Picture 2, Contestant Billy Henderson, by Ray Wong for The Washington Post