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In the summer of 1955 Clarence Thomas left his mother's tenement in Savannah, clutching a brown paper shopping bag stuffed with everything he owned. The seven-year-old walked with his mother and younger brother, Myers, who carried his own paper bag. The abrupt departure came with no warning and little explanation from his mother. They were going to live with their grandparents, she told them. She would see them when she could, she said. Having seen his grandfather only once in his life, Clarence knew almost nothing about the man who was suddenly to be his guardian. He regarded Myers Anderson as some kind of god, a rich man who lived in a big house and owned both a car and a truck.
He was utterly terrified even before he crossed the threshold.
A tall man, Anderson stood ramrod straight and walked stiffly. Years of chopping firewood, his first business, had chiseled his big hands into callous knobs. One of the few photos of him, taken much later in his life, shows a lean man dressed in a white T-shirt. Anderson's dark black skin, creased and weather-beaten, almost blends in to the mahogany mantelpiece behind him. There is a trace of a scowl across his face. His eyes burn defiantly at the camera, and the muscles in his body look tense, barely suppressing the obvious resistance he felt over being photographed.
Anderson delivered heating oil to black customers in a green Ford truck. Painted letters on the side advertised his business: ANDERSON FUEL OIL CO. The Andersons' two-bedroom house, built just before Clarence and Myers arrived, surrounded the boys with luxuries they had never known: a secure roof over their heads, an indoor toilet, and a bedroom of their own. Anderson bought them clothes and decent shoes. His wife, Christine, the boys' grandmother, made sure they had plenty to eat.
But the comforts came at a price. Under Anderson's roof, the boys lived by his strict rules. He allowed them no break-in period and accepted no excuses. Similarly, nothing prepared Anderson for the sudden responsibility of raising two young boys. He fell back on the only role model he had ever had -- the uncle who raised him thirty years earlier in nearby Liberty County -- and the rigid discipline and hard work of his youth.
Anderson nicknamed Clarence "Boy," and Myers "Peanut." Boy and Peanut, the two sons he'd never had.
He immediately taught his grandsons to tell time by his clock. Each morning he awoke before the sun rose == "'fo' day," he called it -- and he worked from "sun to sun." He put his grandsons on the same schedule, rousing them before sunrise every day, even during summer. The morning ritual became so ingrained that Clarence often sensed his grandfather's presence in the predawn darkness before he heard his deep voice. "Get up, Boy," Anderson barked. "Y'all think y'all are rich!" Clarence Thomas cannot remember a single morning of his childhood that he was not up to see daybreak.
Anderson accounted for every minute of his grandsons' time, ensuring that they were busy with chores or homework from breakfast to bedtime. On school days he demanded they be home by three o'clock to help him with his afternoon fuel-oil deliveries. They washed and polished the oil truck; they cleaned his car. They cut the grass and trimmed the hedges.They helped make the cinder blocks that Anderson manufactured in the backyard and sold to neighborhood customers.
On weekends Anderson sometimes drove out to a lumberyard to collect used lumber, which he recycled to build houses. Clarence and his brother pounded out the old nails in the boards and deposited them in a tin bucket; Anderson recycled those, too. Only on Sundays, after church, when he himself rested, did Anderson release his grandsons from his control.
The boys learned quickly that Anderson was never to be challenged in his house. His word was the law. He enforced discipline with a thick belt that he rarely had to use. "He was authority," said Thomas. "You didn't dispute him. And he was very clear about what your responsibilities were, and he meant it. There was no wiggle room ... You did what you were told to do.
"When he was talking to an adult, you didn't sit there and gaze at him. You were a child and he was an adult. It was his house and he was the man of the house .... He would tell you, 'I rule here.' "
Anderson believed that a man learned by doing, and he deferred nothing to the boys' youth. What he did, they did. The point was driven home forcefully when he roused Clarence and Myers early one morning, just after Christmas 1957, less than three years after they began living with him. Hustling the boys into his '51 Pontiac, Anderson headed south from Savannah toward rural Liberty County, where he had been raised. He typically left the house before dawn on days he traveled, brewing a pot of coffee and pouring it into a Thermos for the drive. Clarence, then nine years old but short for his age, was probably just tall enough to peer through the windows at the blurring countryside.
In Liberty County Anderson turned onto a gravel road and drove for about a mile before veering left down an old dirt track. The car rumbled over the uneven ground and came to a stop in an overgrown field. Anderson's grandfather, Harry Allen, had bought the land in 1893. Now it belonged to Anderson. Anderson called the pastures "the rice fields" after the crop cultivated back "in slavery times."
Anderson stepped out of the car and planted his feet on the sandy soil. The boys watched as their grandfather paced around the open field, thinking. He walked under a tall live-oak tree, then began marking off the ground beneath it: ten paces one way, twenty the other ...Judging Thomas