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southerner
October 3rd, 2010, 11:35 PM
INTRODUCTION


In 1956, during the winter/spring semester of my sixth grade year in elementary school, I would celebrate my twelfth birthday. That fact alone would hardly have created a stir at the local Spivey’s Five and Dime. But, a lot of what I encountered during that time frame could probably spark an interest in anyone who has ever sunk into depression lower than a bathysphere’s limit. Or, soared higher than Edmund Hillary’s heights on Everest. Or, been more embarrassed than the editors of the Chicago Tribune after the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline – all while never straying more than five blocks from their own front door. One need not be a world traveler to travel the world – of emotions.

In that five-month period I experienced every feeling ever known to man or beast, plus a few that had not yet been officially recognized. I was a wide-eyed innocent, on the cusp of puberty, living in what should have been an ideal age for making that sometimes difficult transition as smooth as possible. But, even in the best of times, one can frequently experience the worst of times, and I consistently found myself dancing dangerously close to the edge of disaster, aided and abetted by my amazing ability to trip over my own tongue. If asked the question, “Did you ever have one of those days,” my answer likely would have been, “Yeah. Pretty much every day.”

Scarecrow, a character in the first book I ever read, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, became my role model. Being absent a brain seemed preferable to having one permanently set in malfunction mode. My older sister, Irene, added to my feelings of incompetence, for she defined perfection in everything that mattered — scholarship, personality and beauty. Although my situation was far from unprecedented, it seemed unique enough to me. However, and without the flimsiest evidence to substantiate my belief, I felt as if my time to shine lie just beyond the next sunset – that I would somehow beat the odds and become as Irene, or as close as I could get given my self-proclaimed deficiencies. Beauty seemed beyond my reach and scholarship would require a struggle, but a winning personality was definitely within my grasp. I was determined to nurture what I considered the three most important attributes necessary for a complete interior make-over: open ears, tight lips and a brain to make Scarecrow proud. Incorporating them into my daily life was a much taller order than I might have imagined.




THE ERA


Village Creek, forty feet wide in spots, coiled its way through our West End community. Beyond the creek were three sets of railroad tracks. Across the tracks was a black neighborhood. In some ways, I suppose those tracks might well have been forty miles across.

My two brothers, along with a select group of friends, sometimes made the slippery voyage across Village Creek, hopping from one wobbly stone to the next, trying to keep their feet from getting drenched. The most common reason for that journey was to engage in rock battles with their perceived adversaries. For whatever reason, battling it out struck them as the normal thing to do, and rocks were plentiful along the tracks. Had true anger been at work, they probably would not have taken turns and had an unspoken understanding that only one rock could be airborne at any given time.

Nevertheless, even though the rule was obeyed, the day came when a small, colored boy was struck in the head, causing an immediate ceasefire, for that, most assuredly, was not supposed to happen. Everyone rushed to the fallen kid, except for two white boys, including the one who had launched the wayward stone, who lit out across the creek in fright.

When the youngster sat up, looking dazed, someone told him to count backward from a hundred to see if his brain function was okay. He said he wasn’t but six and the only way he knew his way to a hundred was by going forward in tens.

"Ten-twenty-thirty-forty-fifty-sixty-seventy-eighty-ninety and one hundred. Go!" he said, and everyone agreed his brain seemed normal. Then the boys concocted what they considered the perfect alibi to account for the large knot on the child’s forehead, a tall tale having nothing to do with rock battles or race.

Twenty minutes later, the victim’s mother demanded an explanation for her son’s injury. Though the boys scoured the tracks in earnest, some resorting to getting on their hands and knees, no one was able to produce the piece of fallen meteorite that had supposedly done the damage. With sad faces all around, a permanent truce was declared. No boys, black or white, ventured beyond the natural border after that.

For many years, the Amos ‘n Andy Show was my only link to day-to-day life within the black community, but the show’s regulars were all adults, so I remained oblivious to what it was like for the kids across Village Creek. Be that as it may, I had more problems than I could shake a stick at on my side of the creek.

***

“Dannie Jean Beechworth, I declare!” From my mother’s tone, I had a hunch she was about to engage me in another of her notoriously one-sided conversations. Now, I knew there was no way she should be able to see me at the back door, not from her vantage point at the kitchen sink. But, Dad often said she had eyes in the back of her head, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume she also had the ability to see around corners.

“You be sure to wipe those filthy feet before you come traipsing into my kitchen. Out there running all over creation with the dogs and the poop and Lord knows what all else. I’ll swanee, young’un. I don’t know what to think about you sometimes. Better yet, now that I am thinking about it, just take your tenny shoes off and drop ‘em on the side of the steps there. I’m settin’ up some new rules. We gonna start doin’ like them Chinese people from now on around here. They take off their shoes ever’ time before they enter their houses, uhhh, believe they call ‘em ‘haciendas.’ Wonder how come they’re the only ones to do that. It surely is a great idea … don’t have to worry at all about moppin’ up tracks. I’ve also heard tell they don’t have dog poop in their yards either, because they… well, just never you mind about that right now.

“The point is, I don’t wanna hafta be cleanin’ up ever’ time I turn around. Why, you’re plenty old enough to start pitchin’ in on a lot more of the heavy work, just like your sister Irene does. What’re you, eleven now, baby?” Mother, known to her brood as “Mama,” had the curious habit of sprinkling terms of endearment amidst a tirade.

“Yes’m, Mama. Eleven years and three and a half months,” I said, while removing my shoes.

“Bless my soul, with six of you kids, it’s gittin’ nearly ‘bout impossible for me to keep track these days. Anyhow, I was down on my hands and knees scrubbin’ floors and wipin’ walls when I was half your age. By the way, sweetie, before you come in, I need for you to go round up your brothers and sisters. They’re pro’bly scattered out all the way from Village Creek to Hobbs’s Drugstore, and I’m not gon’ be able to call ‘em home, since I blistered one of my whistle fingers on that hot coffee pot this mornin’. Supper’s gonna be ready in an hour or so, and I want y’all all washed up, Dannie Jean, so you don’t come in here lookin’ like little guttersnipes and smellin’ to high Heaven. Your Daddy’ll be gettin’ home here in a little bit, and he just might tan all y’alls hides.”

Mama’s warnings might have sounded like serious threats to passersby in our well-traveled back alley, but I was accustomed to her periodic rants, which were typically all bark. Even so, it was best to let her – the daughter of a preacher – speak until the well ran dry, once she got rolling. No matter the subject, we knew to listen closely to her sermonizing, for every now and then, she would throw a pop quiz at us to be sure we’d been paying attention. Her bark could get a little toothy if she caught us daydreaming during one of her “life lessons,” as she liked to call to them. Dad rarely raised a hand to any of his kids, and certainly not over trifles. We had to make an intentional step beyond the invisible line of doom before Dad’s warning turned into a warming – of our britches. But, that didn’t prevent Mama’s mentioning his imminent arrival as a potential health hazard. More often than not, it did the trick, causing us to mind our Ps and Qs for the balance of the day.

Mama continued, “Now, you been listening to your mother, Dannie Jean? What’s a Chinese house called, hmmm?”

“I don’t really know, Mama, but it sure ain’t ‘hacienda.’ That’s Mexican. We learned that in jog’raphy class last semester.”

I had my shoes back on, ready to begin the round-up, but I nervously awaited Mama’s response. I realized she might consider my remark smart-alecky, which could send her right back on the warpath. Luckily, that did not happen.

Measuring her words, Mama said, “Oh, okay then. But, uhhh, Mexico’s not up. It... it’s down south. Anyhow, go on, now. Scoot!”

garza
October 4th, 2010, 02:29 AM
I'm tryin' to place the accent, but I be dog if I can pin it down. 'Mama' surely knows how to raise old Billy, and that ain't no lie. Keep it up, ol' son, and you got youself a good story, sure enough.

Middle Georgia, maybe, around Coffee or Telfair county where folks tune in to Country 105 that started in Milan and ended in Rochelle? Huh?

southerner
October 5th, 2010, 02:34 AM
Hey garza,

I replied to this last night, but it (obviously) didn't take. You're close...Bamer, Jefferson County. What happened to them Dawgs? Roll Tide.

Thanks!

garza
October 5th, 2010, 04:00 AM
Yo, Southerner - North Central Alabama? No wonder I couldn't place the accent. Gets cold up in them hills, don't it?

southerner
October 5th, 2010, 04:40 AM
Yup, dang cold this morning. Supposed to hit 40 tonight. Gotta break out the old army blanket!

michaelcthompson
October 8th, 2010, 07:31 PM
A few notes:

With so many different stories on this site, I am kind of selecting by titles that attract me. Yours did!

I can also tell you have a flair for language and story-telling and that you are not an amateur. Have you been practicing the craft for awhile? I like your use of metaphor and vocabulary - a particular favorite analogy is where you mention that the main character's mother should be allowed to "speak until the well runs dry." I also laughed at the children's concocted story about the meteorite - I know as a kid I told a few absurd stories just as ridiculous as that one.

Keep going with your story, it seems like it wants to get out of you! Your love for words is very obvious, and that's a good thing.

southerner
October 17th, 2010, 03:50 PM
Hi Machael,

Sorry for the delayed response. My free time has become extremely limited as my work partner of 25 years has an inoperable tumor in his stomach. It metastasized, and he hasn't long, so I'm pulling 11 hours, 6 days a week, while trying to get by to visit him AMAP.

I'm glad you enjoyed my post. I've actually "finished" the book, but have continued tweaking. The complete name is Southern Shade. Thank you, kindly.

Blessings,
Ben