The Community Action Program: Warrenton, Virginia

Photo/Courtesy of The Daily Yonder
The War on Poverty began with President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, Kentucky, in April 1964.
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I didn’t realize I grew up poor until I landed a summer job working for the Community Action Program. In order to work for the program your parents had to be below a certain income level and we qualified. CAP was a program instituted out of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”. The Community Action Program and the Neighborhood Youth Corp both “authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 and designed to keep needy students in school by offering them such incentives as a stipend, work experience, and ‘attitudinal’ training”. Both organizations were headed by Mr. Felton Worrell, who had also once held the position of choir director at William C. Taylor High school before it was converted to a middle school. You rarely hear or see the word ‘stipend’ when it is not preceded by the adjective ‘small’ as in, “he received a small stipend for his work at the research lab”, and I can guarantee you, the salary they paid us fit the definition to a tee.

I was 17 years old and this was my first real work experience. My first assignment was to (and this is how I interpreted it at the time) go to some white man’s house and do his yard work for him. I didn’t like the concept and did not apply myself at all. I had never trimmed hedges or pruned flowers or anything of that sort. The man had to practically babysit me the entire day. Yes, one day, I was not asked to return after the first day.

Soon after, I was assigned to the St. James Baptist Church as a youth coordinator (a fancy title for baby sitter), the most I remember of that job was that the “Center” (which is what we called the Community Action Program headquarters on Lee Street) sent a bus throughout southern Fauquier to pick up kids and take them to Vint Hill Farms Station to swim in their pool, everyone really looked forward to that weekly trip. The bus even picked up kids and delivered them to Vint Hill to watch fireworks on Independence Day. Vint Hill had the only public pool that black kids were allowed go to back then. The nearby Remington Swim Club was private, therefore the “White Only” facility didn’t have to worry about being forced to allow blacks to join. I remember our neighbor, Mrs. Georgia Hayes, tried unsuccessfully to sue the swim club in order to gain membership.

Vint Hill Farms Station Pool.
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Vint Hill Farms Station was another of the, apparently many, electronic surveillance stations that dotted the Fauquier County landscape. VHFS was run by the US Army and the infamous NSA, they too spied on embassy row monitoring communication of friend and foe alike, they took some heat for that back around 1989.
After holding the job at St. James for a while I was transferred to the base commissary at Vint Hill as a shelf stocker. I enjoyed this job because it gave me and all my friend’s access to the facility’s gymnasium. Yes, those were really the good old days; you could come and go, on and off a military run facility with absolutely no identification whatsoever, just wave to the guard and they’d wave you in. Don’t try it today.

At one of our weekly meetings at the Center, one of the administrators, Mrs. Fleegle, told us that we had been given a grant that would allow us all to take a four day, 3 night trip to Miami Beach, Florida. The government would pay a portion of the tab, but each of us would have to sell $400 worth of chocolate candy bars (you know the kind). If we reached the goal as a group that uncle Sam wanted us to match, we could make the trip. All of the students (or employees) were given several boxes of candy each to take home to sell in our neighborhoods, two weeks later we would meet to turn in the money and further our plans for the trip. Two weeks went by, we met and were asked “How many of you have collected your 400 dollars?” no hands went up. Of the more than 20 children, no one had been able to sell four hundred dollars worth of candy, so the bar was lowered; Did anyone raise $300? $200? $100? It was finally decided that we should sell $100 worth of candy and come back in two weeks. Two weeks later, we returned and were asked “How many of you were able to sell one hundred dollars’ worth of candy bars?” no hands went up. The prospect of going to Florida was beginning to look bleak. No problem though, a NEW plan was devised, they told us “OK, if you each can sell $40.00 worth of candy, you can go”. Two weeks later we were queried and only one hand went up, it was Gloria Woods, out of all those kids she was the only one who raised enough money to go on the trip. Finally they said, “OK, don’t try to sell anymore candy, if you can come up with the $40 on your own, get it from your parents, borrow it, whatever, you can go”. I went home saved the next 2 weeks’ pay , asked my parents’ permission and surprisingly to me was allowed to make the trip.

Still there were people, who did not raise the necessary funds, but they were allowed to go anyway, everyone who wanted to go could go whether they came up with any money or not.
For some unknown reason, the Center decided to deliver the 20 or 30 kids to Union Station and subject us to a 17 hour train ride to Florida, big mistake. Those kids tore that train to shreds. We started out relatively quiet but then we all got use to our surroundings and at some point all hell broke out. Kids were running up and down the aisles from one car to another, screaming laughing, fighting, yelling. The more the passengers complained the louder the kids got. I even got tired of the hustle and bustle of the long train ride and just wanted to sit back and enjoy the ride, but they wouldn’t have it. The conductor spent the majority of his time chasing down my friends and bringing them back to their seats, mind you, no one was under 16 or over 18, a trainload of wild animals, they were. The final straw for the conductor came when someone broke one of the reclining seats; it sat flopped back against the seat behind it. They’d been using the seats as trampolines, jumping from one to the other until, finally one caved under the pressure. The conductor gathered up all the kids, cleared out an entire car of passengers at the rear of the train, moved us into that empty car by ourselves then left and locked the door behind him. For the rest of the train ride, we were as noisy and destructive as we wanted to be and no one got any sleep at all.

Photo/Courtesy of State Archives of Florida; Florida Memory
Aztec Resort Motel – Miami Beach.
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When we arrived in Miami we checked into the now defunct Aztec Resort Motel, right on the Miami Beach ocean front at 159th street and Collins Avenue. As the adults were checking us in, a man, who had been watching us all from a distance, approached and introduced himself as “Mr. Griffin, the house detective”. Up to that point, I had only seen house detectives on old Humphrey Bogart type movies and have not seen one in person since. He told us that he would be keeping his eye on us and he was true to his word. The man never took his eyes off us for our entire stay.
One thing that I learned immediately upon checking in was that barely anyone in Miami Beach spoke English, especially the service workers; they were all Cuban, mostly all black Cuban. By then I had studied Spanish in school for a couple of years, but I was nowhere close to being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker. “No me gusta las albondigas” was about the best I could offer, I’d just have to bide my time until I was in a situation where I was eating spaghetti in order to tell someone, in Spanish, that I did not like the meatballs. That opportunity never came, so I spent much of my time in the motel trying, in vain, to interact with the maids when I needed something.

I left home with 20 dollars in my pocket and unfortunately for me, just across and down the street from our motel was a little pinball arcade and it only took an hour after our arrival for me to walk out of that establishment penniless and distraught over what I would do with no money for the next 3 days. I was at the arcade with Jimmy James and on the way back to the motel, as we were crossing the street, a red convertible pulled up to the corner where we were and stopped. Two beautiful white girls were in the car and one asked what we were doing for the next couple of hours. We told them we had nothing planned and out of the blue one asked, “How would you two like to come with us and make an x-rated movie?”. I was in complete shock, taken aback, embarrassed and a few other adjectives. I was just barely able to stammer out some excuse as to why we couldn’t go with them. Here we were barely 17 years old walking along the Miami Beach strip and getting hit on by two beautiful girls but who were obviously old enough to drive. Looking back, I’m pretty sure we two country bumpkins would have been driven to some far away alley where their boyfriends were waiting and been beaten and robbed. I’m both disappointed and relieved that I never found out what was actually in store for us had we accepted their offer.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
That’s me enjoying the pool at the Aztec Resort Motel on Miami Beach.
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When we returned to the motel, Mrs. Fleegle (not her real name) was gathering everyone together to take us to a local movie house. We’d returned just in time. The theater was within walking distance so we headed out of the building and down the street. Can you imagine the sight we made, 20 plus young boisterous black kids, laughing and joking our way down Miami Beach? People were stopping on the street and in their cars to watch the parade we made. Someone from across the street yelled out, “What’d you do – win a contest?” We sort of ignored them, a few kids gave responses that can’t be written here, but we made it to the movie theater as a single unit without causing too much of a scene. The theater was like none I’d ever seen before or since, there was a red carpet and velvet ropes stretching from the street to the huge double doors and to top that off, there was a doorman (white, not Cuban) dressed English garb holding the door for us. He sort of turned his nose up at us as we entered, but he held the door for us to come in anyway. The interior of the building had a huge chandelier and valuable looking paintings hanging on the walls and for the life of me I can’t remember what movie we saw that day.

By the time we returned to the motel it was getting dark, we had eaten already so all that was left to do was hit the beach and the pool. After we came in and went to bed, the house detective visited us several times throughout the night yelling at us and warning Mrs. Fleegle about the disturbances we were causing, threatening to kick us off the premises if they continued. The next day we took a bus tour of the Orange Bowl and President Nixon’s “southern white house” on Key Biscayne, we also toured a factory of some sort but it eludes me what type it was.
That night a storm came up out at sea, so we decided that it would be an excellent time to go out on the beach and wade in the dangerously high winds and waves. After almost drowning a few times as the storm grew in intensity and Gloria Woods accidentally losing her top for the third or fourth time, we came up with the brilliant idea of building a bonfire on the beach, that’s right, a bonfire on Miami Beach, directly in front of our hotel. We had it going pretty good and we’d been gathered around the fire for about 5 minutes when the house detective came running out of the hotel and onto the beach in his white suit and clutching his gray fedora against the wind.

Photo/Courtesy of Affordable Florida Vacations
“Put that fire out you backwoods country bumpkins!”.
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“What are you idiots doing? You can’t build a fire out here! You’re not in the sticks now, you’re in Miami!”, he went on yelling, “Some poor lady left her kid in the hotel room for a moment and all this smoke came pouring in through the windows. She thought the hotel was on fire and now she’s called the fire department. GET THAT FIRE OUT, you backwoods country bumpkins!!!”. We quickly complied, the fire trucks came and went, the gathered crowd was dispersed, things quieted down and we went in and went to bed. The next day things ran a lot smoother, no one got in to trouble.

On our return trip back, we flew Delta Airlines from Miami to D.C. The strange thing is that it only took an hour and a half to make that flight to Washington National. I recently flew round trip from Reagan to Miami and neither leg took less than two hours and 20 minutes to make. I’ve never understood why it takes so much longer to fly the same distance now than it did over 40 years ago. It is a mystery for the ages I think. That was our trip and our contribution to the war on poverty. We had a great time and received some life molding experiences to look back on. A special thanks to LBJ’s commitment to helping the underprivileged, Uncle Sam’s undying need to spend taxpayer dollars and Mr. Worrell and his staff for caring enough to keep us safe and out of real trouble.

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Growing Up Colored: Everyday Life


“Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou”

“Sing it again Daddy, Sing it again!” We pleaded with our father to sing some more. “Huh? You wanna hear it again?”, he asked. “Yeah, daddy, sing it one more time”, we were all yelling by then. Dad started the song from the top again…

“Good-bye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, gon’na have big fun on the bayou “

(Cue up the sound of children’s laughter, applause and screams of delight)
Our father didn’t sing very often, but he had a really good voice and we loved to listen to him. He liked both kinds of music Country AND Western and that’s all he listened to when we were growing up. You can be guaranteed that nine times out of ten, if he was singing in the car, we were probably sitting, parked in front of J.J. Newberry’s Department Store on East Davis Street in Culpeper waiting for our mother to finish doing her weekly clothes shopping or we were in the parking lot of Dr. Walter S. Nicklin’s office in Warrenton. We sometimes waited for 3 or 4 hours for mama to come out of the doctor’s office. Back then, there were separate waiting rooms for White and Colored.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
Dad taking care of the kids while Mom takes the photo.
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Dr. Nicklin’s office scheduled appointments so Whites were served mainly during the day and Blacks were scheduled in the evenings, even so, if mom had a 7pm appointment, and a white person came in without an appointment, my mother would be pushed back so the white person would be next in line to go in. This was very convenient for those whites who did not like to wait their turn during the day with the other white patients; they could just waltz in any time after six in the evening and be next in line to see the doctor no matter how many people were waiting. So many times dad had his hands full trying to keep the six or seven of us under control while Momma got herself or one of us checked by the doctor. I always enjoyed Dr. Nicklin’s, I’d survey the examination room, looking at all of the old photos of him in his Army uniform and wondering where each photo had been taken. I believe Dr. Nicklin delivered all of us, except Bajean, she was born in my grandmother’s house in Remington. According to my mother, Earlene Brown, “She was almost not delivered by a doctor. Grandma Brown would not let anybody go get Ellsworth and sent to town for old Dr. Grant, who lived in the upstairs drug store building. He was very old and had to walk the 1 mile from town. He had to go to town back twice to check his elderly sister.
Barbara was a natural child birth because the bottle of ether Dr. Grant brought with him was empty. I suffered for years because he did nothing to make sure I was okay. Dr. Nicklin had a fit when he to examined me and the baby.
He said," Earlene I am sorry to tell you that you will never be able to have any more children", famous last words, I had five more.”

On Saturday’s we’d drive to Warrenton to pick-up the week’s mail orders that had arrived at the Sears and Roebuck on Main Street. That’s Fridays in Culpeper, VA and Saturdays in Warrenton. Dad would go to both the A&P and Safeway using a long list and sometimes a coupon or two, but mostly he stuck with the deals he already knew existed through years of experience. The weekly shopping routine had been honed into a science, with our parents working as a team to get it all out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible, they were the shopping version of weekend warriors. If it had been an Olympic event, our parents would have won a gold medal.

Photo/Courtesy of photography-in-place.blogspot.com
If you asked me, Baby Jim’s sold the best hot dogs on the planet back then.
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We were avid movie goers, as I mentioned before, we were always at the drive-in theatre, but the best treat of all was getting all of the shopping out of the way and then going to “Baby Jim’s Snack Bar”, which is still in limited operation on Main Street in Culpeper. They had some of the best hot dogs known to man, whereas, “Clayton’s” on old Rte. 29 in Bealeton had some of the best Fried Chicken and potato salad this side of the Rappahannock (unfortunately, I was not well traveled back in those days and didn’t have much experience outside of the Rappahannock region). We didn’t get to go to Clayton’s very often, but we gobbled down that chicken like it was our last meal on earth. We always made time to go the Glen’s Fair Price Store on East Davis Street, where we would spend our weekly twenty-five cent allowance. I could spend the entire day in that store just looking at all the “stuff”, they had lots and lot’s of stuff.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
Glen’s store in Harrisionburg is still in operation.
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I still can’t figure out how we escaped major injury while we were growing up. There were so many pitfalls that we walked in to and then out of most times unscathed. I remember the time the whole gang of boys decided to go squirrel hunting. It was early on a Saturday morning and the guys had just arrived from ‘over on the Ridge’ to get started. There was Frank, Buster, Herman, Donald, Almond, Raymond, me and several others. We spent the better part of the day traipsing around through the woods searching for game, we didn’t find a thing. The last time we went hunting, we had a skinned squirrel hanging from our clothes line waiting to be cooked. The older kids never went hunting without making sure what they bagged was eaten, this was not just for sport. We all had our Daisy B B guns, some were the pump action, some had the Red Rider Carbine. I just know that the pump guns were far more powerful than the carbines. As I stated earlier, we had been out in the woods all day long and we were getting fidgety, we were looking for something, anything to shoot at. Finally someone said, “Let’s play war!” “Yeah, let’s play” We all agreed that war was the thing to do. Now I had heard about these legendary war games and still saw the after effects of one really huge battle. Sonny Davis still had a crater directly between his eyes after one such episode, when he got shot between the eyes they decided it was time to quit. And Donnie showed me the damage done to his finger when he was shot while aiming his gun, that shot in the hand probably saved his eyeball.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
The sooner we can get the shoveling done, the sooner we can go squirrel hunting.
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But this time I was in on the action. Buster chose one team and Raymond chose the other, being Raymond’s tag-along brother meant that he was obligated to pick me for his team. The teams were divided up and final rules and regulations were put in place. “Shoot for the legs or the coat, no shooting above the chest”, we all had our Navy pea coats on and I knew from prior experience that a BB meant absolutely nothing hitting you with your pea coat on. Raymond and I used to take turns, turning our backs to one another and shooting each other in the back with the guns, we never felt a thing. So I knew that as long as I got shot anywhere on my coat, I was safe. “If you see a squirrel, the game is over, we go after the squirrel”, Buster made sure everyone knew what we were really out there to do.

Our groups split up and we went off to a distance where we couldn’t see their team and could barely hear one another. We were defense, Buster’s team was offense. We hid and set up a perimeter to protect our fort. Softly we could hear them trudging toward us in the leaves. I lay on the ground still as a field mouse waiting to see the whites of their eyes. Suddenly out of the darkness a form came into view, it was Buster, he was bent forward keeping low so as not to be easily spotted. But I had my sights set directly on Buster’s chest. Suddenly, he noticed me on the ground, he turned, picked up his rifle and aimed it directly at my head and just as we were both about to fire our weapons, someone yelled out “SQUIRREL!!!” – “SQUIRREL! STOP THE WAR! Almond has a squirrel up in that tree”, we all jumped up and ran to where the yelling was coming from. I breathed a big sigh of relief and stood back and watched as everyone lifted their guns and aimed at the poor little creature, they all shot, they all missed. The squirrel must have decided that it was time to high tail it out of there and took off to the ground, that’s when it became a foot race, man against squirrel. As Almond chased the animal he must have gotten a brainstorm because he took his Daisy Red Rider Carbine and picked it up by the stock and started swinging it trying to clobber the squirrel. As the squirrel zigzagged through the woods Almond stayed right on his tail. The squirrel jumped onto a young elm tree and clung to it about eye level high and that’s when Almond reared back and swung as hard as he could at the thing. But by then the little squirrel was gone and all that remained was the elm tree. Almond wrapped the entire barrel of the gun around that tree. The instant he did it, he realized that maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea, he immediately fell to his knees and started crying. And try as hard as they might, they couldn’t put the Red Rider back together again. Almond cried all the way home that day. But we were very lucky, maybe even blessed, that no one was hurt in that entire melee. We went home, tired, worn out and ready to face another day and with a really good story to tell.

Looking back, I have come to appreciate how well kept we were growing up. We received 3 square meals a day and always a snack immediately after school (usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk). Sometimes we had a delicious ‘Nuco’ sandwich. Nuco was what we knew as fake butter, because for many years we got our butter from Mr. Bowen up the road, but then daddy started buying margarine, but we didn’t call it that, we called it by its brand name. There was bologna and cheese or Spam sandwiches for lunch, there was no cafeteria, so we had to brown bag it to school every day. Almost every Sunday we’d have Steak and eggs and fried potatoes piled with onions for breakfast or toast and chipped beef gravy, that heavy gravy that sticks to your ribs. Sunday dinner was normally fried chicken and potato salad, cabbage, spinach, kale or some other green vegetable from the garden. But the best meal of all wasn’t really a meal at all. On Saturday nights we were sometimes treated to a sneak preview of Sunday dinner with fried chicken and potato salad, this would be the only time we did not sit at the kitchen or dinner table to eat. On Saturday nights we could bring our plates into the living room and watch Jackie Gleason or Gunsmoke while we ate our late supper.
Yeah, there was a lot of love in our family. We stood in line to kiss dad goodbye each morning as he went off to work and mom kissed us as we left for school each day. We ran out of the house to greet our father when he came home from work and we were in church every Sunday morning rain or shine. Growing up Colored for those of us blessed enough to have been born in Remington, VA wasn’t as tough as some have made it out to be, it was a great place to grow up.

Growing Up Colored
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Doomsday at the Park

Photo/Courtesy of the National Park Service
Bumper cars at Glen Echo Amusement Park.
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“Let me hold your ride tickets”, the boy stood directly in front of me blocking my way. “Huh, what…?” I didn’t understand what he meant. He said it again, slowly this time, “Let-me-hold-your-tickets, gim’me your tickets”, he held out his hand, waiting as if he knew I had no choice. I clutched my ride tickets in my hand, “I ain’t giving you my tickets”, he was a lot smaller than me, so I wasn’t afraid of him, even though he looked a couple of years older. As many fights as I’d gotten into with Donnie Carter, I knew he would be no problem for me to handle. “You saying no to my man?”, he gestured as though there were someone standing there with him. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. “What are you talking about?”, I asked puzzled. He spread his arms open wide like a bird about to take flight, then he repeated, “You saying NO to my man?!” He said it sternly, but not loudly, we were standing in the middle of the park. Yes, we were standing right smack dab in the middle of Glen Echo Amusement Park, in Glen Echo, MD, just outside of Washington, D.C. I was there with my church, Providence Baptist and as far as I was concerned, Glen Echo was “The Greatest Place On Earth” bar none. The church sponsored a Sunday School trip each year. At first we’d take cars to nearby beaches or parks, then as more money was raised through bake sales and the like, we were able to hire tour buses to travel further away from home. I had just gotten off the “Jungleland” it’s referred to as a “Dark Ride”. It’s one of those old ride-through dimly lit, haunted attractions based on a mixture of painted African savages, jungle beasts, ghosts and ghouls. Jungleland was my favorite ride, second only to “The Whip” and this guy was taking away from my ability to savor the moment. I wanted to enjoy that ‘I just got off a great ride’ feeling. “I don’t see no man”, I said as I looked around, he’d have to more than this if he wanted these hard-earned tickets. Just then, from around the corner of the building came this gigantic hulk of a boy, he must have been at least fifteen years old, six feet tall, two hundred pounds. I was only ten years old at the time. The big guy just stood back and never said a word. He just kept tapping his hip, kept tapping his hip, drawing my attention to it. That’s when I noticed that strapped to his hip was a hawk-billed knife. All the tickets I had were in my hand, I looked back at the smaller boy as he held out his hand knowing I had run out of options. I gave all my ride tickets to him and watched as they turned away laughing, heading for the JungleLand.

We’ll get back to those guys in a minute, now jump forward two years. My class was taking the annual seventh grade field trip and we had decided to visit Washington, D.C. and Glen Echo. While in Washington, we went into the Washington Monument, visited the Smithsonian Institute and also got in a few hours at Glen Echo. That day, when I arrived at the park the first thing I wanted to do was ride the “Whip”. I had been coming to the park since I was nine years old with the church and had been on this ride so many times by then that I had to show off for my classmates who were visiting the park for the first time. I had already been on “Jungleland” with Carolyn Washington, my supposed girlfriend at the time. In between screams I sneaked in a kiss or two and I was sitting on top of the world. So when it was time to ride the Whip I got in a car alone, the cars could sit three people, but I got in by myself. I propped my feet up on top of the front rail and leaned back in a relaxed pose. The safety bar was supposed to latch (the sign read, “Keep the Safety Bar Latched at all Times”, I pulled it to me but I didn’t lock it. The ride operator didn’t seem to mind so away we went. I was as cool as cool could be, known to my classmates as “The Walking-Talking Dictionary”, “Mr. Dictionary” and then by the infamous name, “Pete-The-Pimp”. I remember when they nick-named me that. We, being country bumpkins that we were, decided that if we were going to take a trip into Washington, DC, we needed nicknames so we’d appear cool to the city folk once we got there, so we all picked names for ourselves. I was given the name “Pete-The Pimp”. When I went home that day and told my mother what my new nickname was, she kept prodding me as to how I acquired such a title, then she asked me, “Do you know what a pimp is?”. I said “sure, it’s a guy who walks cool and talks cool and walks around like he he’s bad”. My mother said “That’s not what pimp means, maybe you’d better find another nickname”. I didn’t understand her concern so I kept the name, at least for the duration of our bus trip.

So there I was sitting on the whip, laid back relaxed, ready to show everyone how nonchalant I was about the whole thing. Everyone else was holding on for dear life, but I was way too smooth for that, I leaned back with my arms stretched out, as though I were relaxing on a park bench. As the cars began picking up speed and began being whipped around the grease caked, stainless steel floor, (the grease kept the wheels cool and made the whipping action even more jerky and rough), the ride operator began pointing down to the bottom of my car each time I made a revolution past him, trying to get my attention. He would cup his hands and yell something to me. I sat up erect trying to hear better each time… “Your wheel’s coming off!”… What? I panicked, “What?”, as I passed again… “Your wheel’s coming off!”, he was pointing frantically to the car’s wheels. I threw back the safety bar and a split second before the next whip of the car came I jumped off the ride and slide the entire length of the steel floor with my arms outstretched like a high wire walker trying to keep my balance as I slid through the thick grease. I rammed full force up against the guard rail, gathered my bearings and turned around to see the ride operator bent over laughing at how gullible I was… “You idiot, if the wheel was coming off, I would have stopped the ride!”. He laughed even harder. Unaware of how close I’d come to being injured or killed, I limped off the ride, still in shock and found some grass to clean off my greasy shoes. I felt a lot less cool after that incident. But that happened in the seventh grade; now let’s back up to the fifth grade and the problem with having had my tickets stolen right of my hands.

Photo/Courtesy National Park Service
Glen Echo Park Main Gate.
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I found my mother and didn’t bother telling her what had just happened to me. She asked how I could have used up all my tickets so quickly, but forked over more money without waiting for an answer. I bought more tickets, jumped on the whip and was coming off the ride when the two boys approached me again. They blocked my way. “Let me hold your tickets”, oh no, not again, I thought. I looked first at the little guy then over at his big body guard, I handed over my tickets without saying a word. By now, you’d have thought I would be walking around without the tickets visible to the world, but no, I wasn’t that smart, I had them out for all to see. I decided that this had to stop, so I ran to the park entrance and found two security guards sitting at the gate, one was munching on a banana, the other looked like he was sleeping. “Hey, two boys just stole my tickets!” they just sat there and looked at me, “Two boys a big one and a small one just stole all my tickets”. The guard who was eating the banana was holding onto the gate with one hand and looked up and asked, “Do you see them now?” He waved his hand out across the park and I turned and sure enough, you could just about see the entire park from where we were standing. “No Sir, I don’t see them”, I answered. “Well if you see them again, come and get us and we’ll kick’em out of the park”. All of a sudden I felt lost and alone. Since we were at the park with the church group, I started looking around for one of the older boys. I saw Frank Banks walking toward the Whip. I ran up to him and told him about my being robbed twice today. He confidently said, “Give me your tickets and stick with me, they won’t bother you no more.” All of a sudden I felt great, as though a heavy weight had been lifted off me. Frankie would take care of everything.

We’d been hanging together for a good fifteen minutes, when we decided to ride Jungleland together. We rode the ride, we had some laughs, we got off the ride and just like clockwork those guys were in front of me at the exit again. It was as though they were watching my every move. The big guy stood about ten or fifteen feet back from the little dude while he stuck out his hand, “Your tickets, lem’me hold ’em”. I quickly said “I ain’t got no tickets”, with a knowing smirk on my face and thinking to myself, man are you in for a big surprise. He said, “Where they at?” He knew I had tickets, I always had tickets. “My Man’s got’em!” I said with pride, “I got a man now”. I had a man backing me up now, just like he did. I pointed to Frank, who was standing right beside me. The little guy turned to Frankie without missing a beat and held out his hand, “Let me hold your tickets”, he looked right up at him never changing his expression.

“Naw, you ain’t getting my tickets”, (My hero, good old Frank). Frank stood right up to him. And again, “You saying no to my man?” You had to give him credit, this guy had his script down pat, and he was sticking to it. Frank looked around and said, “Yeah, I’m saying no to your man… I don’t see no man, so yeah, I’m saying no to him”, Frank knew the scoop and I had prepped him for what to expect, but he hadn’t gotten a look at the little guy’s man yet because, according to plan, he stayed in the background until just the right moment, then appeared in all his bulkiness to get the full effect. “So you saying no to my man, here’s MY man right here” and he pointed over to the big guy. Frank got his first look at the humongous giant of a boy, looked over at me and without uttering a word, struck out running across the park as fast as he could. In what seemed to be cat-like reflexes, the big guy caught up with him, moved in front of him and blocked his path. He grabbed Frank by the scruff of his shirt and escorted him back to the Jungleland exit ramp where we had been standing all that time. The little fellow snapped his fingers and gestured for Frank to hand over his tickets. Frank reached into his pocket and dejectedly handed him my tickets AND his. I hung my head down in disgust, Frank walked off in the opposite direction never saying another word, I didn’t see him again in the park that day. I didn’t ride anymore rides after that, I’d learned my lesson. I spent the remainder of the day trying to track down Buster to extract my revenge on these guys. I knew that if anyone could handle these guys Buster was the guy for the job. I never did locate him that day, the day I got robbed three times at Glen Echo Amusement Park, a day that will live in infamy.

PostScript:


Blacks weren’t always welcomed at the park. There were marches and protests in 1960 which led to the integration of the park in 1961. I would be remiss if I did not mention all the struggles that took place which allowed me and my friends and family the opportunity to enjoy Glen Echo. As I recall, even though the Promo from WPGC mentions the pool, the pool was closed down once Blacks were allowed in the park, just to avoid having blacks and whites swim together. At least whenever I was there, the pool was chained shut. When Marshall Hall Amusement Park integrated, they actually cemented over the swimming pool.

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Copyright ©1997-2013
All rights reserved
Revised: Sept. 2013

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Southeastern Elementary School

Photo/Coutesy Fauquier County Historical Society
Southeastern Elementary School.
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She stood over me, watching me as I read my history book in silence. The sleeves of her sweater were rolled up to her forearms as they always were and a Certs mint was placed strategically in the center of her tongue. I never saw Mrs. Davis without a Certs in her mouth and she was vigorously sucking on it as she tried to size me up, looking at me intently as though she were trying to see what I was thinking. Then she pointed her skinny finger at me and said, “You despise me, don’t you?” She looked at me over her reading glasses, her graying hair stiff with pomade, her finger trembling with anger. “You resent me-e-e-e-e!” she said it matter-of-factly. I stared at her, never taking my eyes off her; I didn’t once open my mouth.
We went through this ritual almost every day. I’d be sitting fifth seat down, third row over from the door and look up from my work and see her glaring at me and from out of nowhere, “Why are you staring at me?”, she’d ask. She would then slowly raise her massive body up from her desk and make her way to me and stand directly in the front of my desk , leaning forward. When she opened her mouth I could see the Certs mint sitting in the center of her tongue and again she’d utter those five words, “You hate me, don’t you?” Finally, I got up the nerve to reply, “No Mrs. Davis”. I didn’t know what else I could say.
“Don’t be impudent with me young man! You despise me and you know it. Why do you resent me so?”, again I sat there staring back at her. It may have been some type of miscommunication or maybe it was the fact that up until that year, I’d only known one teacher, Mr. Berry, from Remington Grade School. All I know is when I entered 5th grade we were all transferred to the brand new Southeastern Elementary School in Calverton, VA. Even though this new school was all Black like Remington Grade School was, I was still not adjusting well and Mrs. Davis wasn’t helping with the transition. I liked Southeastern, it was huge by Remington Grade School standards, and they had the First through the Seventh grades, with several grades being so large that there were two classrooms per grade.


Unfortunately, fifth grade was overcrowded too and some kids were being moved to Mrs. Scott’s fourth grade classroom until more space could be made available for all the students. I will give you one guess as to who was the first student chosen to move to Mrs. Scott’s classroom, that’s right, ME! It didn’t take Mrs. Davis long to decide who should be moved and my name was the first one called. We only stayed there for about 2 weeks, then the fifth grade was given a larger room to accommodate all the students and we moved back in with our classmates, but during those two weeks, we all did fourth grade level work. Right now though, I was back in the cross hairs of my nemesis, Mrs. Davis. “I’m going to call your parents and find out why you despise me so”. I just sat there staring at her as she went on another tangent. Finally, when she did call my mother, Mom came down to the school to talk with her. My mother made up some excuse related to my not being able to adjust to people I didn’t know, or that it took more time for me to become comfortable around strangers. But once she’d spoken to my mother and accepted whatever it was she was told, we started getting along a little better. We had no more confrontations about how I felt about her and that was fine with me.


We had only been in school for a couple of months when on November 22, 1963, Mr. Reevis, the school principal, came on the PA system and made an announcement: “I would like to inform you that at approximately 1:20 pm our time, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by an unknown gunman in Dallas, Texas”. We always kept our classroom doors open and immediately we heard screams and cries of disbelief from the other classrooms. Mrs. Davis began sobbing uncontrollably and ran from the room. We sat quietly, upset, but not fully understanding what was going on or what the implications were. By 2 p.m. the school buses had pulled up outside and we were sent home early for the day. The president was killed on a Friday, on Saturday I stayed in and watched TV all day long. And back then there was no such thing as a 10 second delay on TV programs when networks broadcast live TV, so as I watched continuous news about the President’s assassination and the assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, it was all live and in living black and white. I was there in front of the television set when they covered Oswald being transferred from the jail after being interrogated for hours and it was live as I watched Jack Ruby walk up to him in the underground passageway and shot him point blank. I saw it as it happened and ran to the kitchen and told my mother what had just occurred. That’s the first and only time I’ve seen someone killed right before my eyes. The whole country came to a halt when Kennedy died and although I was only eleven years old, I knew that things would never be the same again.


In the six grade I could officially have been labeled a “Teacher’s Pet”. Mr. Clarke was my sixth grade teacher and as far as he was concerned, I could do no wrong. His trust in me was even baffling to me. He thought that I and Henry “Sonny” Jefferson walked on water. Mr. Clarke had a strict disciplinary code and when you stepped out of line, punishment usually came swiftly. Either a pluck on the back of the head or a crack on the knuckles with his foot long rule. For some reason, Mr. Clarke and the second grade teacher, Mrs. H. did not much like each other and whenever the opportunity arose, one would be trying to get the other fired. Such was the case when Mrs. H. asked Mr. Clarke for a ride home one evening after school and “accidentally” opened his glove compartment to discover a pint of liquor stowed there. The next day, she went to Mr. Reevis and reported that he was going back and forth to his car to get a nip during school hours. Mr. Clarke was able to clear himself of the charges when he showed Mr. Reevis that the label on the liquor bottle had never been broken. Mr. Clarke devoted much of our class time explaining the entire scenario to us and how Mrs. H. was always out to get him. Finding out that Mrs. H. had it in for him was rough enough on the old man, but learning that I wasn’t perfect nearly killed him. One day some boys were in the restroom whistling, we often sang Temptations songs and did the Doo-Wop imitations, but whistling was strictly against Mr. Clarke’s code of conduct. Normally, in situations such as this, I would be nearby watching but did not take part in the shenanigans that the other boys were up to, but this time I joined in and whistled along with them. But just as Mr. C. walked in, I turned and went into a stall and when he came in and surprised the boys, I was nowhere to be seen. He grabbed the two boys by their ears and escorted them back to class. Once recess was over, he called them up to his desk to mete out their punishment. The teacher told them that they would have to receive the standard corporal punishment, getting their knuckles cracked, when, in unison, they exclaimed “but, Mr. Clarke, Stanley was in the restroom whistling too.” Poor old Mr. Clarke gapped open his mouth, put his hand to his chest and turned to me in astonishment; “Stanley is that true?” the man had tears in his eyes “Were you in Boy’s Room whistling with them?” I sat there looking innocent and honest and said, “Yes Sir. I did it too”. Actually hearing me say it was almost more than he could stand, a tear welled up in his eye and he said, “I hate to do this, but I’ve got to punish you too, you know that don’t you. I wish I didn’t have to do it”. I said that I understood his predicament and walked up front to his desk and took my medicine like a real trooper, you would have been proud of me. I lost some footing with the teacher, but gained some respect from my fellow classmates, because up until then, they weren’t so sure which side I was on, but now they knew.


My grandmother always allowed us to do whatever we wanted when we went up the hill to see her. We would go up to visit them several times a week and we often took advantage of the fact that she’d let us have whatever we asked for, no matter what it was. We’d go in her china cabinet and pull out fine china, lamps, pottery, it didn’t matter, if we said “Grandma, can I have this?” she’d say, “Sure honey, you go ahead and take it”. Ten minutes after getting home we’d be back with our bounty because our mother would make us take it right back. One day, I was up rummaging around in a dresser drawer at gramma’s house and came across an old wallet. It had obviously seen its best days. But I noticed that there was a circular impression protruding from the outside layer that had been made due to time honored wear and tear, I opened the wallet and inside I found a plastic packet. This time, though, neither did I ask my grandmother if I could have it, nor did I show it to my mother once I got back home, I just took it with me. I had no idea what it was, but I immediately decided to keep it and that I’d take it to school and ask Eugene Ballenger what he thought it was. The next day when I went to school it was raining, and on rainy days there seemed to be less excitement and kids were more subdued. We couldn’t go out for recess, so when recess time came, the only thing we could do was mill around in the hallways and mingle with the other classes. Since the older kids had their recess separately from the younger students, only the fifth, sixth and seventh grades were out and about in the hallways. I was just coming out of the restroom when I saw Eugene standing across the hall talking to several girls. Since he was a year ahead of me in school, I would only see him during recess. I decided that this would be a good time to ask him about the packet I had in my pocket.


Since it was raining out, the corridor was packed with kids. Girls lined the walls across from the restrooms and some guys were standing in groups, shadow boxing, some standing around singing the latest Temptations or Righteous Brothers song and others, like Eugene, could always be found entertaining a group of girls. I came out of the boy’s restroom, saw Eugene across the hall and then stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out the little square packet that I had found. I raised it up above my head and yelled out to Eugene, “Hey Eugene, do you know what this is?!” I stood there grinning, proud that I had gotten everyone’s attention. When they all turned their heads to see what I had the whole place went in to hysterics. Girls started screaming, some held their hands over their eyes and others even slumped to the floor in a feigned fainting spell, while other girls collapsed right into the arms of whoever was standing next to them, the whole school was in an uproar and to make matters worse, we were standing right outside the main office. Boys gawked, pointed and laughed, Eugene stood there momentarily stunned, then dashed toward me and just pushed me backwards into the Boy’s restroom and continued pushing me until I was backed up against the wall. He grabbed me by my collar and yelled at the top of his lungs, “What the hell are you doing? Don’t you know what that is???” I said, “No that’s what I was asking you”, he was up in my face, “It’s a rubber you idiot! Give me that!” He took it away from me and explained what it was that I had brought to school with me that day, then said, “I’ll go out and calm everybody down”. I followed Eugene to the door and he went out and announced that the object was actually his and he had no idea how I had gotten hold of it, but that it was, in fact, his. No one questioned that, he already had a reputation as being experienced for his age, so this was no surprise to anyone and calm returned to the hallways. I came out looking embarrassed, mostly because I, obviously, was the only person in the entire school who did not know what I was holding. As I look back on this incident, I have often wondered how every girl in the hall that day seemed to know what it was. They not only recognized it, but knew how they were supposed to react to seeing it in a public setting. I can’t really pin down who the actual owner was, I had several bachelor uncles could have left that old worn out wallet lying around. But, I’ll never forget the looks on those girls’ faces when I took that thing out of my pocket. Deep down, I must have had some idea what it really was and what type of reaction it would evoke, otherwise, why I would have made such a production of displaying the thing in a manner that was sure to evoke such a reaction. Oh well, I guess we’ll never know’

The next year brought new adventures. We were in the seventh grade, top dogs, “we ran the school”, but only for a moment. There was no middle school back then. You graduated from being coddled babies to becoming young adults in just one summer. Going from the top of the heap to the pit of despair, stepping into high school.

S. P. Brown

Copyright ©1997-2013
All rights reserved
Revised: 8/2013

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How I Found Out

Photo/Coutesy Culpeper Historical Society
Old Town Culpeper, Virginia, where I attended my first ‘walk-in’ movie, “The Parent Trap” – starring my childhood idol, Hayley Mills.
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Hayley Mills was by far my favorite actress as a child. Talk about having a schoolboy crush, I was barely in school when Disney’s “The Parent Trap” came out. Raymond and Bajean spent hours begging daddy to take them to the walk-in to see it. What’s a walk-in, you ask? Well, it was the opposite of a drive-in. You could actually walk up to the ticket booth, pay for a ticket and go in to the theater, sit down in comfortable seats and watch a movie. I had never been to a walk-in movie theater before. All the other movies I’d seen up until then were shown at the drive-in, we’d back our station wagon toward the huge screen, take out a blanket and lie outside enjoying the movie while watching the comings and goings of all the patrons. I often wondered why no one ever got run over out there, I think folks actually looked out for one another back then. At least until that time when it began pouring down raining and one guy whom we had seen sneak in on foot came up to my mother’s window and asked if he could sit in the car with us and finish the movie. Mom instinctively rolled up her window and turned her back on him, he finally moved on after staring in on us. He dejectedly left the place after going from one car to another and finally realized no one was going to let him in. The last movie we’d seen prior to that was “The Tingler” with Vincent Price and that left me quite terrified for years to come, it gave me plenty to think about on many a sleepless night.

It took some doing but my begging paid off because originally Dad had felt I was too young to go, but then he decided to let me go along. So once we got there, I was in awe of the place, we walked up to the building and of course, my first inclination was to walk through the front entrance, but dad grabbed my arm and escorted me to a small side entrance with the words “Colored” written over the door. I didn’t pay much attention; I was too excited about seeing Hayley Mills. We got our tickets and walked up a single flight of stairs and onto a balcony. The entire balcony was filled with loud boisterous kids,throwing popcorn, leaning over the rail and yelling at the people down below. I glanced over the edge and realized what a great view I had up there. I was glad we weren’t sitting where those other poor saps were, who didn’t have such a great view and were being pelted with popcorn by the people who were seated upstairs with us. The movie was great, Hayley Mills was cute as a button and it felt good to be in that elite club called ”Colored”, if it meant always getting perks like this seating arrangement we had. But, of course, the feeling didn’t last.

On most summer morning’s mom would send us outside to get some fresh air, “Y’all don’t need to be cooped up in the house all day”. And then off we’d go straight outside to the well. We got our drinking water from an electrical well that dad had dug by hand using picks, shovels and dynamite. He tells the story of how one day when the charge hadn’t gone off after he’d set the stick in the well and he’d gone back above ground. He turned the knob on the ignition switch and when it didn’t go off, he waited for what he felt was an appropriate amount of time, then climbed back down the ladder to reattach the wires, he climbed back up, hit the switch again and the blast went off this time. (I wonder if I was born by then).

The area around that well was our official playground. We had a young elm tree that we bent just right, so we could use it as our hobbyhorse. There were plenty of trees to climb and you could usually find us hanging upside down from a limb or the swing set bar. But we derived most of our pleasure from building roads in the dirt. We were experts at it and whenever a new toy car or garage was purchased with our nickel-a-week allowance, we were out the next morning in the dirt making roads by placing the palms of our hands on the ground and moving through the dust until we’d had a complete miniature highway built.

We were on our hands and knees right in the middle of one of our great interstate constructions when one of us looked up and yelled, “Oh no, here comes Timmy Albino!” Barbara Jean made a quick dash to the house. First of all, if we had any male friends stop by, Bajean wouldn’t be allowed to stay outside and play with them unless they were our cousins Dewey and David R. who would come across the field on a daily basis to play with us and end up chasing us around the house trying to pee on us. They seemed to get a great thrill out of trying to urinate of us, we got to the point where we hated to see them coming across the field as well. (Excuse me, I had to stop and laugh remembering what our mother taught us to call our privates, I was probably married before I found out it wasn’t really called a ‘Ding-Dong’)

After an hour or so of us screaming from one end of the yard to the other, our mother would finally catch wind of what they were attempting to accomplish and send them back across the field.

But the dread of seeing my cousins David and Dewey coming across the field was nothing compared to seeing Timmy A. walk up the road dressed in his full Roy Rogers regalia; cowboy hat, bandanna, checked shirt, holstered six guns, blue jeans, chaps and cowboy boots. David and Dewey only tried to pee on us in fun and were great to play with when that wasn’t on the list of things to do, Timmy was another story. I guess I don’t have to mention that Timmy was white, he was coming to play Cowboys and Indians or good guys and bad guys and I also don’t have to mention that we never got to be the cowboys or the good guys. Raymond and I were his designated Indians and Mom would send us outside to play with him after he stood in the front yard yelling for us to come out for over 15 minutes and it was obvious he wasn’t going to leave. And why should he, he knew we never went anywhere. So off we went to play. Here’s how the dialogue of our play went:

Timmy – “BANG, BANG!! You’re Dead!!”

Either Raymond or I would fall to the ground.

Raymond – “BANG, BANG!! You’re dead, Timmy!”

Timmy –“No, you missed me”.

Raymond –“No I didn’t, I got you

Timmy –“No you didn’t, Bang! You’re dead again Raymond!” Raymond would fall

Stanley – “Bang, I got you Timmy!”

Timmy –“Nope, you missed me, I was ducking behind the tree

Timmy –“BANG! Stanley I got you

Stanley -“Na-uh! You missed me Timmy

Timmy –“No I didn’t, I got you in the arm” – then I’d fall obediently to the ground.

Repeat dialogue fifty times, with Timmy climbing on the chicken shed, jumping from tree limbs, ducking behind the wood pile and him never once getting hit by a bullet, much less getting killed. We’d be falling and dying every time he pointed his gun in our direction. We were the most frustrated gunfighters in the West, but we did our part, we just didn’t enjoy it as much as he did.

Then Timmy would head back home, only to play again tomorrow. Timmy lived on the blacktop (the paved road) most blacks that I knew lived on dirt roads. And the only time we ever saw paved road was during the mile long trip to town. All of “our” roads were dirt and gravel and they were always the last to have snow cleared in winter or the last to be plowed and graveled in the summer. Once or twice we were blessed to have the chain gang go up our road clearing out the ditches and picking up debris. Mom would make us stay inside when that gray bus would drive up, armed guards would have the convicts file off the bus. As they went to work on our roads, we stayed glued to the window and watched in awe while they were out there.

Photo/Coutesy Brown Family Collection
Earlene Brown allows her children to relax between playing Cowboys and Indians with lifelong friend and neighbor, Timmy A.
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Timmy was the only kid in the neighborhood who could get away with anything he wanted at our house. If we were caught on top of our shed we knew we’d get skinned alive. Timmy would hide up there and we’d say, “Timmy, we aren’t allowed to play up there” and it was as though no words had come from our mouths. He completely ignored our warnings and our father ignored his complete disregard for the rules that we were bound by. At first I thought it was because he was white and maybe that did have something to do with it. But I also know that my father and his mother were really close friends when they were growing up. My dad would say that Rita would always have her goats following along behind her everywhere she went and you never saw her without them”. So, just maybe his loyalty to his friend Rita was the real reason Timmy could get away with anything he wanted and that’s why we were obligated to be Indians or bad guys to his perpetual good guy/ cowboy. This went on almost everyday during the summer. Timmy was at least six or seven years older than us and we had nothing in common other than our little western gunfights. So when it came time for the annual Fireman’s Carnival and Raymond and I were walking through town to get to the carnival grounds. It was natural that when I saw Timmy walking towards us with a few of his friends that I, being a naive six year old, would ring out with, “Hi Timmy!”. But he didn’t say anything; he just walked right passed us as though we weren’t even there. So, I tried again after he passed by. “Hi Timmy!” still no answer. I turned to my older brother and asked, “Why won’t Timmy speak to us Bay Ray? Didn’t he hear me?”

Raymond just kept walking and looking straight ahead and said, “Because we’re Colored Stanley, that’s all, just because we’re Colored.” As we continued on down the street, I overheard one of the boys ask Timmy, “Do you know them boys?” To that he quickly replied, “Nope, I don’t know who they are.”

And that’s when I first learned what it really meant to be Colored, we were different. I still didn’t know exactly what all it entailed, but one thing I did know is that it didn’t feel good.


Prologue – I saw “Timmy” for the first time in over forty years in August 2003 at my father’s wake. He stopped by to pay his respects, we laughed and talked about old times and he unexpectedly apologized for some of the torment and unfair treatment that he put us through when we were kids. It wasn’t something we needed or felt was necessary, because unfortunately, we are all guilty of childhood pranks and snubs that we feel are required if we are to be accepted by our peers, we do things just to go along with the group. There was never any ill will between us and him and I most sincerely appreciate his gesture of kindness, like they use to say, “that’s just the way things were back then.”– Stan

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The Legend of the Woman in White

Photo/Courtesy Brown Family Collection
Haunted woods near Sammy Gibson’s junk yard.
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How in the world did I let myself get into to this position again. I asked myself that question every time it happened and still here I was, yet again, walking through the woods alone after dark. This time it was after a long school play and Eugene and Johnny wanted to walk back home instead of riding in the car with my parents. See, the problem didn’t really rear it’s ugly head until I was the last one left out walking. We lived furthest out so it didn’t matter if there were 20 of us who started out, it was either me or Raymond or both of us together saying “see ya later” to the rest of the group, until finally we were left to finish the walk on our own. This night we had just started out and were walking up through Mr. Sammy’s junk yard. As we headed up the hill past all of the junked cars and on the path that led into the woods, it was inevitable that someone was going to mention the reported sighting of “The Ghost” that reportedly haunted that region. Annette Banks and several others claimed they had seen her coming down through the path, a lady, dressed all in white. When the pale lady got to within a few yards of them, she simply disappeared into thin air. We were passing by Sammy Gibson’s house and heading up the path when Eugene mentioned the ghost story, he said he was there at the time and told of how he saw the woman gliding toward them (a cold chill went up my spin, but I didn’t let on).

         Hearing the story yet another time wasn’t so bad, we knew these woods were pitch black and eerie, but while we were all together, it was fun to chide each other about being too chicken to walk through the woods alone. But Eugene always topped off our hike at some point with the quote that he made no matter which path we were walking on, it only happened at night and he was one of the few people who seemed to ever experience the phenomenon… “I just stepped on my grave”. Oh no, we stopped, Eugene started turning around in a circle looking down on the ground then up into the sky as though he were looking at an invisible barrier of some type, “I just walked over my grave”. Now, if you’re not from the country, you probably have no idea what it means to walk over your grave, I’ll explain it later. What used to get me is that we’d be walking down a path that we walked every day of our lives and he never uttered one word about walking on his grave. Why then, did he feel that some day he would be buried in the middle of path that leads to school, and only after dark did he get this feeling. That’s what I couldn’t understand, how could we be just walking along and all of a sudden he felt, “Hey! this is where I’m going to be buried one day!” but that’s not what he meant, walking on your grave was just a ‘saying’, a figure of speech. Any time you were walking along at night, mostly this only occurred in cool weather, and you hit a wall of warm air – that was the indicator, that was the catalyst for thinking that you had just stepped on your grave, that warm rush of air in your face. Eugene would then call us all over to where he was standing and try to get us to feel the difference from one temperature zone to the other, “Step here, now step forward, did you feel it?” I never felt a thing, but I’d never seen a ghost either, well except for that time that I saw one in our upstairs hallway. I woke up in the middle of the night and there was this little man standing on the chair out side our bedroom door. That chair could be seen from both upstairs bedrooms, the boys room and the girls room. He was just standing there on the chair and then “POOF!” he was gone. The next morning at breakfast, I told everyone what I had seen the night before and my little sister Marcia piped in that she had seen the exact same thing from her room. Now Marcia was highly influential in those days, and not quite the scholar that she is today. Everywhere I went, she tagged along. I suppose she was as big a pain to me as I was to my older brother Raymond. But Marcia wouldn’t let me get out of her sight, looking back I wish I had cherished the fact that my little sister looked up to me, but back then I didn’t quite see having her always underfoot as a blessing. But for her to say that she had seen the exact same little man that I saw on the same night, was proof enough for me. That fact and “The Twilight Zone” kept me up nights for years to come.

That incident also reminds me of the time I was awakened early one morning to find my older brother and sister standing out in the hallway calling in to me, “Stanley! Stanley, looked! Look — UNDER —-YOUR —BED!” He spoke slowly and deliberately, while he and Barbara Jean pointed down under the bed, “There’s a monster under your bed!!!” Raymond had his hands cupped around his mouth and although panic shown clearly on both their faces, he was whispering, presumably so as not to alert the monster that they were on to him. “WHAT?!?” I jumped up out of my deep sleep and stood up on the bed, “There’s a monster under your bed!!!” They were frantic by now and so was I. I didn’t think twice about it, I sprang off the bed and with one huge leap landed in the hallway. I turned, looked back into the bedroom and under the bed, there was no monster there, Raymond and Bajean fell laughing on the floor and I jumped on top of him and started beating my big brother in the chest, which made him laugh that much harder. I could never beat him in a fight and what made matters worse is that he laughed every time I tried, but I kept pounding on him, didn’t matter, he kept laughing…

Eugene stopped short in his tracks and muttered, “I just walked over my grave”….
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 Walking through the woods at night made all those great horror movies come back and start playing tricks on your mind, and as soon as Eugene and Johnny waved goodbye and took the fork in the path that led to their house, my mind started going a mile a minute.. “The Day The Earth Stood Still” – was that a shooting star or a space ship I just saw over those trees. “The Tingler” really is inside everybody, is it getting ready to come out of me right now? Then I couldn’t get that stupid woman’s face out of my head, you know the one who couldn’t speak and the only way to kill the tingler was to scream? (Great movie). Where’s that owl at, where’s that Whipporwill at? Was that a Mountain Lion I just heard? Is that a person up ahead or a bush? Oh, it’s just a bush. All the way home was agony, it wasn’t until I got to the top of our dirt road that I could finally relax a little. Thankfully, Daddy had put a street light up at the house that lit up the whole place and I could see it from the top of the hill. All I had to do was make it down to the driveway without being attacked by something hiding in the woods…

There were paths every where in our little community. That’s the one thing I never understood about where we lived, there were paths every where, I mean everywhere. There were paths that just led to other paths, There was the path to go the long way around and then the shortcut path to the same place. And absolutely no one seemed to mind that there was at least one path going through the center of their front yard. We had a path cut from our front porch to the road, cut at a 45 degree angle as we exited our house, then there was a path from the side door to the shed, that then extended to the path that my cousin Tyrone had made all by himself that led to Aunt Beatrice’s house. I never used that path my entire life. There was the path from the back door to the outhouse. We had two paths going up to our grandparent’s house, one that went straight up the hill and the other that went past where the Confederate soldier was buried (sometimes they said it was an Indian, but mostly it was referred to as a soldiers grave) The indentation in the ground under that big oak tree was evidence enough for me that SOMETHING was buried there. From there, you could take the path straight down alongside the driveway going from grandma’s house (that’s the driveway in the photo that is used as a backdrop for this website), but there was also the path that went at an angle to the blacktop from grandma’s house. While I’m on a path going absolutely no where, why were there so many huge rocks on Mr. Bowen’s land? Had anyone else ever noticed that he had boulders on his property. We used to play ‘rock-walk’ on them, a game of follow-the-leader on those large rocks which made the game that much more difficult.Those boulders seemed out of place there, grandpa had rocks on his land too, but they weren’t that big. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill (sorry). There was the path to the school, the path from Mr. Penn’s field thru the woods to Mrs. Annabelle’s house, that’s where you would just be walking to get over to the Ridge and at any given time find Fernando tied and hanging from a tree. The older boys would just get bored and take him out to the woods and hang him by a rope or nail him to a tree, he seemed to get a kick out of it or at least didn’t mind.

Fernando Beasly got the short end of the stick growing up. He was always in trouble or under suspicion for one thing or another. I look back and wonder if he and his sister Carlita may have been of Hispanic descent, you don’t find very many American Blacks with names like Fernando and Carlita, but that would be generalizing. They had brown skin so as far as we were concerned they were black. Fernando was tough, anyone else would have been killed a dozen going through what went through growing up especially by that big rock I hit him in the head with. I threw it as hard as I could at the skunk we were chasing, but he just grabbed his head and continued trying to get that skunk out of the cobby hole. (That’s another story)

Before Eugene and Johnny moved into their house, the Joneses lived there. Whenever Mrs. Jones would make a batch of apple butter and biscuits, her son Nat would run down to the house and tell us, “Mama, just made some apple butter, you’d better come quick before Viola May and Mary Ann eat it all up”. Mary Ann could eat a whole foot-tub full of apple butter by herself, so we knew we had to get up there before it was gone. There’d be hot biscuits and a big tub of apple butter waiting for us when we got there. Mrs. Jones was a really good cook. I really did liked the Joneses, either one of them was at our house at all times or we were up at their house. They always treated us like we were family, except for that time when we were playing in their woods and they thought that Mr. Pinn’s horses were stampeding up the hill. I was walking behind everybody down through the woods when they thought they heard the sounds of hooves coming toward them and the whole bunch of them turned and started running back up the hill, I was smallest and couldn’t quite run fast enough. They knocked me down and trampled me as they tried to escape the wild horse on the loose. They left me lying in the path face down, while they were all standing safe and sound behind the white picket fence looking back at me, waiting to see if the horse would get me. As I regained consciousness(*), I looked up and saw them standing there with terror written all over their faces. I got to my feet and ran up the hill only to look back and see that there was nothing there. I was only five years old at the time, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I had foot prints on my back and leaves coming out of my ears. The horse didn’t stampede them, they stampeded me. Not long after that incident Mr. Jones found work in Washington, D.C. and the family pulled up stacks and moved to the city. We only saw some of them in ten to fifteen year spurts after that.

         In a previous chapter I explained how it had become a ritual for those boys in the neighborhood to use our chimney to relieve themselves whenever they were at our house. After a time the grass stopped growing around the chimney, but even still, that group urinary tradition was an educational experience. I learned two things from it, 1), contrary to the Declaration of Independence, not all men were created equal and 2), that the way I looked down there was not natural to God’s intended purpose and in fact, He had instructed Abraham to make some adjustments to how he had originally created us. But little did I know how well the tradition of peeing at the chimney had sunk in on some of us. After serving four years in the Navy and being out on my own for some time, I went back home to visit my parents one day, but when I arrived, I found no one home. By this time dad had long since built indoor facilities. I had a key, but decided to just leave a note saying that I had been by, get back in my van and leave. But then I saw a Cadillac El Dorado slowly coming up the dirt road toward the house. It pulled into the driveway and out jumped Nat Jones, who I had not seen in almost twenty years.

I looked up and saw a Cadillac El Dorado pulling into the driveway..
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He had brought a lady friend with him , she got out wearing a white sun dress and stood quietly by the car. He introduced her, we shook hands and he then quickly brushed past me, muttered something like unintelligible and headed straight for the chimney. He quickly upzipped his pants and stood there peeing up against the chimney just as if he’d done the same thing yesterday. That’s right, 40 year old Nat Jones drove all the way from Washington, D.C. it would seem, just to ‘go’ up against our chimney. He breathed a sigh of relief, leaned back and said with a slight grin on his face, “A-a-a-a-a-h-h-h, just like old times”. He adjusted his zipper, we went inside and sat down to talked. Now this is the part you really won’t believe and I really shouldn’t even include it in this story, but it’s the truth and I was so shocked by it, but you will see how it all ties in. Now, as soon as we went inside, we sat there talking for a moment and then he directed my attention to his “woman”. “Ain’t she pretty? Stand up ******* and turn around, ain’t she pretty?” I felt obliged to respond, “Yes, she’s real cute”. (Now remember this was way back in the 70’s) Out of nowhere he asks, “You wanna have sex with her?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, “Whah?”, all the blood drained from my face and I could tell I was red as a person my complexion could get. I was in shock, but tried not to show it. “Go ahead, take her on out to the car. *******, go out to the car with Stanley”, he told her. She got up and started toward the kitchen, then I quickly spoke up “Naw, man, no thanks, (nervous laughter) I already got a girlfriend”. Then he said “Go on man, you don’t mind, do you *****?” She shook her head no, she really didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I was flush with fear and embarrassment, but at the same time started perspiring as chills ran through my body. I changed the subject and we went on talking about family and old times. After they left, I stood in the yard for a while trying to make sense out of what had happened. And then it all came back to me full circle, what I had just experienced here may have been exactly what Eugene Ballenger experienced many years ago back in old Sammy Gibson’s woods. Maybe, just maybe, there really was something to that “Woman in White” story, maybe, these hot flashes and cold chills I was feeling now meant that “I’d just walked over MY own grave”. It was definitely an eerie feeling and one that I didn’t want to feel again.

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