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THE VILLAGE and BEYOND
Memoirs of a Cotton Mill Boy: A Collection of Stories about People, Place, and Purpose
By WILLIAM HALE
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 William Hale
All rights reserved.
In the summer months, all the windows would be open to bring in the coolness of the night. The village was quiet except for the constant buzz of the mill and the occasional whirl of traffic passing. The lonesome cry of a cat, the warning bark of a dog, the slamming of a door someplace, or someone talking in bed in another room might punctuate the deep quiet. Before sleep came, the music of the village always intrigued me. At age eleven, my freewheeling mind catalogued every sound. The quiet was a strange, wonderful gift of the night, a gift I can still open in my memory today.
If the wind was blowing, the scrape of a tree limb against the house might add its coda. Sometimes a roll of distant thunder would break the silence, making me uneasy. Or maybe I would hear the unexplainable crink of the house settling on its foundation of brick pillars. The stillness could also be disturbed by the soft sounds of my own body as my internal organs went about their business.
Those moments just before sleep, with the house open to the serenade coming from the village, were a haunting delight for me when I was a boy. My world had not yet accumulated so many things to regret or responsibilities to replay as sleep tried to overtake my consciousness. There was a deep feeling of freedom while I waited for sleep to come. Perhaps there is significant truth in the words of the song from the Broadway musical Big River: "Only once in your life are you free." As I grew older, the noises of the day I had just lived were often too loud for sleep to roll in gently as an ebb tide.
The houses in the village were built close to each other because the planners wanted to pack as many as possible on the available land. They were so close we were often entertained or annoyed by the sounds from the houses next door.
Mr. Garner was a strange sort of man who said very little, but his garden was the best on the block. He grew huge watermelons, with the vines entwined around his corn plants, and when they ripened, he shared them with the kids. On his back steps he would cut a melon in many slices and invite us to gather around and feast, but he never did much more than grunt and smile. Late at night after the "settling" had come, he would sit on his porch all alone and play his harmonica. He played mostly hymns, but occasionally he seemed to be composing something of his own. It was a soft sound, and you had to have "the ear" to hear it. Most people did not hear it, because their own sounds were too loud.
The night quiet was frequently disturbed subtly by a yell or shout in the distance. At other times it was disturbed in extraordinary ways. There were two families of Morgans, not related, who lived side by side on our block. They could not have been more different. The noises from their houses were polar opposites. One house emitted boisterous, chaotic, frightening sounds, while the other sent forth sad, scary, "sacred" noises. In both cases the sounds were some form of hollering or yelling.
One of the Morgan families had two teenage sons, Charlie and Louie, who were strong, athletic types—big strapping boys. Their daddy was a classic weekend drunk, and when he was drunk, he was mean, cantankerous, and violent—and he wanted to hurt somebody. For years, when they were younger, the boys just put up with his antics, but there came a time when they had grown up enough to take over. To protect their mother and themselves when he came home, the boys—who were fine Boy Scouts—started tying him with heavy ropes to a brick pillar under the house. He would be under there late into the night, cussing, raising hell, threatening everybody, and shouting. Then later, as the booze began to lose its grip, he would be pleading and promising to do right. Finally, they would untie him and let him in the house, and that part of the village would be quiet once more. Did tying him up like that cure him? No! It happened over and over again.
The other Morgan family had one teenage son. Unlike most of the village people, who attended the traditional Protestant churches provided by the mill, these Morgans were members of the Pentecostal Church of God, which was about a mile away. Their worship services were filled with shouting, speaking in the "unknown tongue," and being baptized with the Holy Spirit. They had a male quartet that sang jazzy, highly emotional songs, to which the congregation stood and moved about, clapping their hands to the beat. Mama called it "hiccup" singing because of the jerky cadence of the music. For a long time, this Morgan family would have a midweek prayer meeting at their house, which would begin after supper. As the village began to succumb to darkness, they would hit high gear, shouting, singing, and garbling the unknown tongue loud enough for gods to hear. It went on into the night. Lying in bed with those sounds whirling about made me feel weird and scared—the breakdown in common decorum gave me the creeps.
However, most nights were peaceful and serene, and sleep came easily to me, especially after a tough day of running everywhere, climbing trees, playing sandlot baseball, and letting my boyhood energy drive the minutes. When I was searching for sleep with the village at rest, it was like a sweet melody playing in the background. It had to be beneficial for my developing awareness of life to know that following the cacophony of daily activities there would be the symphony of sleep. This bred in me a fine-tuned security about the wonder of the cycle of each day.
Today we close all our windows and doors, so nothing from the outside can get to us, and we therefore live with artificial electric tones. We hear the constant hum of the air conditioner, the off-and-on cycle of the refrigerator, the dropping of ice that is endlessly being frozen, the flush of the toilet, the sound of rushing water in the sink, the crackling sound of the Woodwick candle that imitates a log burning in the fireplace, or the ping of the computer, signifying that a message has appeared there to be read.
I have to listen carefully these days to hear any sounds beyond our walls. Occasionally I can hear the splat of rain hitting the metal flashing around the chimney, the peal of our wind chimes, a car horn doing what it has to do, or the whining of the fire truck leaving the firehouse across the street. All these closed-up, contained sounds are comfortable and effective for a pleasant lifestyle, but they can never measure up to the peacefulness of the village slowing down and settling in for a night's rest and rejuvenation.
I can almost hear it now!
I don't know when that big black Bible came into the family, but it was there from the beginning of my days. It had its own resting place on the bottom shelf of the mahogany table in the corner, near the settee in the front room. Never did I see anyone reading it. It was just there, like the rug or the lamp. My only excursions into that huge book were not to read the contents, which were scary and churchy. I occasionally would pick it up and lay it on the piano bench so I could read again names and dates that Mama or Papa had written years ago. Right smack in the middle of the huge, age-worn Bible were pages for recording family births and deaths, which dated back four generations. It thrilled me over and over to find my name, "Billy: July 25, 1926," listed with the births. That old book was a curiosity to me.
Summer days without school were times to explore the house or to plunder through dresser drawers that contained a wonder world of odd things—like an old half-torn picture of some old person, which has faded into more oldness; a broken pair of scissors, waiting for whatever you do to scissors that are broken; several bobbins of colorful sewing thread; and a discarded reed hook. Everything in that drawer generated curiosity.
However, around 1934 to 1935, my curiosity quotient was exceptionally low. There were no programs, people, or incentives to help me launch inquisitiveness in my life. I was seven or eight years old. I had never read a book for pleasure, nor did I own one until later in my life. Maybe all boys were that way—just not interested in probing why things were as they were.
One summer morning, an event occurred that changed my life. This particular morning, I was alone on the front-porch swing, which made two mesmerizing sounds as it went back and forth. One was the tinkle of the chains that looped over the two big hooks at the top; these chains were a few inches longer than necessary and struck each other as they swung forward and back. Along with this, there was a high-pitched squeak because the hooks had not been greased in a while.
It was rare for me to have the swing all to myself. Usually there would be two or three Hales swinging, but this morning it was mine alone. For variety, I turned over and rested on my belly. The swing came to a stop, and I focused on the cracks in the planks of the porch floor. A small line of ants caught my attention. Ants were moving back and forth, busily, and they were stopping to "kiss" each other as they passed. Why did ants never stop moving? The presence of ants normally called for a flit gun to kill them, but these ants were not bothering anybody. I do not recall how long I lay there on my belly looking at ants. It could have been a long time or just a fraction of a second, but I was temporarily relieved from the major issues in my life (mainly storms and church). A touch of curiosity had momentarily rescued me from the mundane and morbid and set me free to be just a boy.
My mind was usually locked into the present. I did not pursue ideas or things—I simply did not have the mental space to be aggressively curious. In school, books that were designed to propel young minds to probe had no effect on me. I never asked a "why" question in school as Billy Pruitt or Dot Gilmore, who were from educated families, did.
The young boy lying belly down in the swing needed a push, a shove, a launching pad; he needed something or someone to jump-start his curiosity. To paraphrase and combine separate quotes from writers Frederick Beuchner and Carlyle Marney, I counsel, "Never underestimate the power in any one moment of time, because therein may lie the fibers from which you can weave the fabric of life someday—including this moment. Listen to your life—it is happening right now! Listen—listen."
Too often, significant moments pass by unheeded and underutilized; they fade ever so quietly into the cracks of our own history. It is the cavalcade of lived moments that make up our history and become the words of the master narrative of who we are. The boy in the swing was about to have one of those moments. Would he listen and store it, or would he let it become part of life's detritus?
It happened often in the summertime. We would all be gathered in the kitchen for lunch, and there would be a rapping at the front door. Someone would go down that long hall and soon shout back, "Calvin's here." Mama would cringe. She knew from past experience that he would stay a few days. Calvin would be uninvited, and he'd show up like the wind on our porch. Calvin was the older son of Mama's brother, Peb, who lived about twenty miles away, in the small mill village of Lyman, South Carolina. One of five children, Calvin was fourteen or fifteen at this time, tall, lanky, and bony—an Ichabod Crane sort of guy. My brother who was about Calvin's age would have nothing to do with him, so I became the only family member who would hang out with him.
Mama would give Calvin a blanket and let him sleep behind the settee in the front room, as far away from us as possible because, as she said, "He don't smell right." Calvin was a hobo, a vagabond, rough and tumble. He stayed just this side of breaking the law. They could not keep him at home, school, church, or in the village. He would be gone for days without a word. Calvin was a total embarrassment to his family.
Our family would visit Calvin's family from time to time on a Sunday afternoon, if Papa could get someone in the village to drive us up there, because we had no family car. Mama would ask about their children, skipping over Calvin because she did not want to embarrass Aunt Eva.
Calvin and I spent most of the days together during his visit. He carried a rick-rack paddle in his back pocket. It did not have the rubber band with a ball attached; it was as empty as the plate on our dining room table on Sunday where the fried chicken had been. He used it to knock rocks or a handful of china berries, sending them into orbit. Calvin and I would sit perched near the top of the chinaberry tree in our backyard, from where we could see the neighborhood, watch folks hanging clothes on the line, or see cars and trucks pass by the front of our house. Calvin loved to talk. Sometimes we just sat "nesting in the gale." He would harvest chinaberries for later sending into orbit.
Calvin had been everywhere! Why, he had been all the way to Atlanta, Georgia. I knew I would never go that far! He would take his finger and snap it really hard against his paddle—snap—and say, "Billy, that's the way it sounds when a 'cracker' knocks a homer out of Ponce de Leon Park," and my mind would travel to a place I had never seen. He had been to the ocean, and he told me, "Billy, you can stand there, and it keeps coming at you and never gets there." Calvin had been to Birmingham, Alabama, and he told me it looked as if a thunderstorm was about to happen all the time because the smoke from the steel mills covered the sky.
Calvin had been to New Orleans several times. He had eaten shrimp, which I had never heard of, and that would set my mind off on another trip to a fascinating city. "If you go down Canal Street and turn right, it will take you to where the pretty girls are."
Every time he started talking about the girls, Mama would hear him—even if she was on the other side of the village. She would shout, "Billy, don't listen to him; he's crazy as a loon." Right in front of him she would say that.
Early each morning, I would run down the hall into the front room and jump up on the settee with both knees to see if he was still there. If he was, it would be "fantasy land" again that day. Inevitably, one morning he would be gone, just like the wind, his blanket folded in the most meticulous detail as if to say, "Thank you, Aunt Mae, for letting me stay a day or two."
I had perhaps two or three Calvin visits over the summers of my boyhood, cajoling me now from time to time to recall those beautiful hours in the top of the chinaberry tree. Then the visits stopped. I lost contact with him, but memories of Calvin stayed with me.
Over the years, families scatter, become absorbed in new venues, adventures, and relationships, and they forget aunts, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents. As the decades passed, I heard an occasional tidbit concerning Calvin's whereabouts, most of it just rumor: armed robbery, prisoner in an Alabama jail, escaped, recaptured. I heard once that he was in Hawaii. Then one day a telephone call came, and someone said, "Thought you might want to know that Calvin died." I never heard that an obituary or memorial service of any kind was carried out in his honor. It was simple—Calvin had died!
I could not let that stand. I decided to write my own eulogy to Calvin and mail it to his surviving family, but I never got around to it.
Calvin gave me the most precious gift of all, and it was not a trinket from his travels or his favorite rick-rack paddle. No, Calvin gave me the gift of curiosity. It was his tales of places and events that caused me to dive with passion into books at school. I wanted to find Atlanta, the oceans, Birmingham, New Orleans, and much more. In so doing, I discovered my great loves of geography and history, which became my keys to learning.
Yes, I should have written that eulogy and said these things to his family. Perhaps now the words that I have written can serve as some consolation for that lost opportunity.
Never underestimate the power in any one moment—even if it is simply "nesting in the gale" in the top of a chinaberry tree.
Never miss a Calvin just because "he don't smell good."
Excerpted from THE VILLAGE and BEYOND by WILLIAM HALE. Copyright © 2014 William Hale. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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