Filled with the local color of life in rural North Carolina between the 1950s and 1970s, Doing Time is a poignantan-and at times humorous-story of multi-generational trauma and abuse, and the journey of the human spirit to healing and redemption.
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By Jack N. Lawson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Jack N. Lawson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLong Time
Time travels in divers paces with divers persons ... As You Like It
Annabel Lee had been named by her mother, Colleen Watkins-'fallen woman' and former English teacher. After leaving her teacher training college in Raleigh, North Carolina, during the late 1950s, Colleen had gone to teach high school in the western part of the state: rural Appalachian, Bransford County, on the eastern slopes of those ancient mountains. She had wanted to bring her love of the English language and literature to people that the times, culture and economy had seemingly passed by. It was her vocation-and her mission. It had all started so well, but ended ingloriously. In later years Colleen blamed it on Edgar Allan Poe-Poe had been Colleen's favorite American writer. The romantic in her was attracted to Poe's freely dabbling in the darker side of human nature and his tragic sense of life. She always harbored the thought that had she been around during his time, Poe's literary light would not have been doused in a bottle, and that his weak and sensitive heart would have enchanted the world for decades to come. However, Poe was long dead when Colleen Watkins, newly qualified English teacher, found herself moving to Bransford County and renting the small garage apartment owned by county sheriff, Wyatt McNair.
Wyatt McNair had been sheriff as long as anyone in Bransford County could remember. With each passing election, the office of sheriff had become something of a birthright, such that no one dared run against him. Generations back, the McNairs had come to North Carolina as a result of the crofters' clearances in Scotland. And like so many immigrant families, they gravitated to areas in North America that resembled their former homelands-and not always to their advantage. The McNairs had left the western highlands of Scotland, where stony earth grudgingly yielded any harvest and north Atlantic salt winds tortured whatever managed to grow or live there. But even with the Atlantic between them and their dispossessed crofts, they still managed to trade one difficult living for another: trying to grow corn and burley tobacco on the stony mountainsides of North Carolina.
Although Wyatt and family still eked out a small living from their one-hundred-and-fifty acres (of which thirty were under cultivation), it was as sheriff that he made his living. Perhaps the name helped: 'Wyatt.' It had the ring of the American west and one of its most famous lawmen. Being sheriff in a rural county in the South had its advantages as well: Wyatt didn't just uphold the law-he was the law. Thus whatever he chose not to see wasn't illegal. As the McNairs were good Scots Presbyterians, alcoholic wine never passed their lips at Sunday communion. Moreover, Bransford County was a 'dry' county-since before the days of Prohibition. Yet delve far enough back into the woods on an old logging path, find a good source of spring water and-if the breeze were right-the sweet smell of sour mash and wood smoke would betray the existence of a whiskey still. What the sale of burley tobacco at the warehouses down in Winston-Salem couldn't buy, corn whiskey could-and even more-tax free. Wyatt himself benefited from the moonshine trade, as his ne'er-do-well son and namesake, Wyatt Junior, ran a still just off their property and into the territory of a state forest. As the term 'moonshine' suggests, this illegal distillation of corn liquor took place 'out-of-hours.' Farmers and tradesmen by day became moonshiners by night.
Wyatt McNair, Jr.-or 'Junior,' as he was known-had tried many jobs since leaving high school eight years earlier. Intellectually lazy, but handsome and physically gifted, he had relied on looks, charm and one hell of a throwing arm to get him through high school. With his six-foot two-inch frame, Junior was the quarterback during football season and pitcher during baseball season. These were the perfect reasons for rarely having his homework in on time and for having his choice of pretty girls. As Junior didn't give his teachers any real trouble, and as his daddy was sheriff, Junior was allowed to 'drift with the breeze.' He graduated in 1949, just missed being drafted for the Korean War, and had hoped to go to a state university by means of a sports scholarship. However Junior's arm wasn't up to university conference standards and his brains even less so. Plus universities were still full of enthusiastic young men seeking an education on the GI Bill. So Junior worked the family land, and along the way failed at various attempts in local business. The natural fall-back for any such mountain lad was moonshining. The fact that his daddy was the county sheriff was his insurance. And McNair senior never ever let Junior drive the whiskey; it was just too big of a risk; and besides, there were dozens of hot-headed and lead-footed mountain boys eager to prove their prowess behind the wheel of a stripped-down Chevy or Ford.
The McNairs still churned out less whiskey than most of the family operations in those parts. This was, in fact, intentional. McNair senior might be outside the law on this account, but he wasn't a bad man. Far from it. Hell, everybody knew and could see that Bransford County was poor. And it wasn't as though the moonshiners were opium dealers, selling to mind-addled addicts. Besides, most of the call for 'shine came from the more prosperous Piedmont-Winston-Salem and Greensboro-and even the state capital, Raleigh. It was all just a case of supply and demand; after all, if people didn't want moonshine, there'd be no reason to make it. Nevertheless, as the local law and a Presbyterian elder, Wyatt senior had to be seen to be playing fair with Federal law. There would be the occasional visits from agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms-or ATF, as it was referred to sometimes. Everybody knew that there was 'shine being produced from North Wilkesboro to Asheville and nearly all points in between. The film "Thunder Road" was far from pure fantasy, and NASCAR, still in its infancy, was largely the domain of the fast-driving young men who transported the illegal liquor. So Wyatt senior had to produce results from time-to-time. The ATF men, or 'revenuers,' as they were called, were serious men in dark grey suits and they brought with them an arsenal of revolvers, shotguns, dynamite and axes. The former two for personal protection and the latter two for destroying any stills they should find. By mutual agreement with other still operators, Wyatt would arrange a schedule of whose still would be raided from year to year. It was a fair system. Suspected by-but unbeknownst to-the revenuers, the moonshiners would always be alerted to their arrival. As the revenuers approached the arboreal lair of the whiskey distillers, a shot or two would often be fired by the 'shiners-and in the general direction of the raiders. This lent an air of credibility to the raid and whilst the revenuers were ducking for their lives (there were human hearts within those grey suits), the 'shiners would make good their escape. The axes would come out for puncturing the whiskey vats and a stick of dynamite would then be tossed into the boiler to dispatch the still. Photographs would be taken of the raid, before and after, and the revenuers could take the self-congratulatory evidence of a job well done back to the state office.
* * *
Junior McNair was twenty-five when Colleen Watkins first set foot on their farm in answer to the newspaper ad about their garage apartment. It was July 30, 1956. More than one person later had cause to rue that day, month and year. The McNairs had been used to having old maids, the occasional Forestry man (probably a revenuer!), and ex-GI rent their apartment. But here was Colleen: twenty-two years old, an aspiring high school teacher-but no old maid! Colleen was a shapely five-foot five-inches tall, auburn-haired, with striking green eyes. Junior was walking back from the barn where the family kept their tractor when he spied Colleen leaving the apartment with his mother. He stopped in his tracks, just out of their sight, and let his ravenous eyes devour her frame. He liked what he saw: the front, the profile-and he damn sure liked watching her walking away to her car. He whistled softly to himself, muttering, "Man, there oughta be a law!" Like the Magi of old, following their guiding star, Junior McNair-failed business man, part-time farmer and ne'er-do-well moonshiner-now had a goal in life. He had to have Colleen.
Ever appearing in his role as Southern 'gentleman,' Junior made his play for Colleen on the day she came to move into the apartment. Over breakfast, and in an uninterested sort of way, he asked his mother, Ginny, whether the new tenant might need any help shifting boxes and furnishings; as he'd already taken care of the tobacco priming up on the allotment, there wasn't much to keep him busy today. Ginny reckoned she knew the priming was done because, if Junior remembered, she'd been there to help him. Ginny was a woman of her culture: strong, once attractive, weathered and shaped by the mountains, with skin color somewhere between bronze and ruddy brown. She wore no make-up and possessed knowing, patient eyes, which also betrayed more than a little world-weariness. Her younger son, Frank, had left home at seventeen years of age, joined the Marines and been killed in Korea. His body was never returned. But the look in Ginny's eyes betrayed more than a mother's grief; rather it was a loss of her self. As the only remaining child, his parents' hopes and expectations for him rested heavily upon Junior. More than once, when Junior drove his mother into town for shopping, he had seen her lingering eyes search the faces and features of the infants of local unwed mothers, as they shamefully went about their business. And on each occasion, Ginny would turn that same unhurried gaze upon Junior's face, and-guilty or not (how could he be sure?)-he would feel the blood rising to the surface of his skin. He wasn't sure either.
Junior knew he had better not linger over the question of helping the new tenant move in. He shuffled over to the humming refrigerator and fumbled for the milk bottle; and then over to the cupboard for a glass. As he poured, Junior yawned and asked: "What time you 'spect the new tenant to arrive?"
"About four," Ginny replied.
"Another Fuller Brush salesman?" snorted Junior.
"Not this time," his mother responded. "Got us a teacher for the county high school."
Junior had to bite his tongue not to betray his interest. Instead he swung about, put the milk back in the refrigerator and huffed, "I'll be around to help. Gotta check the spark plugs on the tractor now."
"Shit," Junior thought to himself. "It's only 8:30 a.m. How'm I gonna get through 'til four? Guess like any other day-they're all about the same."
Still in the midst of the 'dog days,' the clouds had boiled up as the summer heat increased during the course of the afternoon; they had released their moist content in a short-but fierce-thunderstorm. Such storms were common during mid-to-late summer, and brought much needed relief from the heat in these days before air-conditioning.
When the pick-up truck bearing Colleen's belongings arrived, Junior wasn't long in meeting it. He picked his way around the lingering mud-puddles, greeted the driver, and helped him reverse up to the outside staircase that led up to the apartment over the garage. There was some wheel-spinning in the slick, red clay, but the truck successfully negotiated the short distance to the outside staircase. Although Junior had supposedly been working around the farm all day, he was amazingly fresh and clean. This didn't escape his mother's notice when she came out to greet her new tenant. Junior was releasing the tailgate as Colleen got out of the cab. She accepted Ginny's outstretched hand.
"Afternoon, and welcome," offered Ginny.
"Thank you; it's good to be here," replied Colleen, as she noticed Junior at the back of the truck, his carefully chosen T-shirt revealing his still-athletic form.
"This strappin' young'un is my son, Wyatt; but we all call him 'Junior.'"
"Pleased to meet you, Junior. I really like your place."
"I'd be glad to show you around it," interjected Junior-a little too quickly-so he added: "When you're all settled in, that is."
"That'd be nice," Colleen replied, dipping her eyes.
"Well, come on, girl, let's get you moved in before supper, which I insist you have with us."
Ginny's words-though friendly and motherly-came as more of a command than a suggestion, so Colleen simply laughed and said, "I can see it's no use my saying 'no.' I'd be delighted."
Junior was already hefting boxes of books up the white-washed wooden stairs. The apartment came partly furnished: small sofa and two chairs in the sitting room, and a modest dining table and four chairs in the eat-in kitchen, a bed and dresser in the bedroom; so there were only books, two small bookcases, clothing, dishes and kitchen utensils to move. "You got more books than anything else," puffed Junior.
"Guess I should," laughed Colleen, "I just finished my teacher training."
"What d'you teach?" fired back Junior.
"English. Do you like to read?" queried Colleen.
"Ha!" interrupted Ginny. "That boy coulda got a high school diploma in avoidin' readin' or doin' homework!"
"Thank you, Mama," grumbled Junior, "I read."
"Read what?" asked Ginny, "The corn flake box?"
Junior wasn't used to being put down in front of women-especially those he was trying to impress. And he certainly wasn't used to having his mama around when he was trying to chat up an attractive young lady. He would have to make his pitch for Colleen later. "I'll leave y'all to do the unpacking. Heavy work's done. Time's supper, Mama?"
"Same time it always is; when you're father's home from sheriffing: six o'clock. And could you pick some extra collard greens for supper?"
Junior was already halfway down the stairs: "Sure," he mumbled, half to himself.
Sheriff Wyatt arrived home at his usual time (when not on a call): 5:45. Junior was already hanging about the kitchen. "What've you been doing today, boy?"
"Worked on the tractor some-oh, I helped the new tenant move in the ..."
"I bet you did," interrupted Wyatt, giving stress to each word. "Your mama says this teacher is quite a looker, so between you and me, son, don't you go shittin' where you gotta eat-understood?"
"Hell, Daddy, what d'you think I am?"
"Son, I know what you are-you're a McNair and you're a man. And I don't even want to think about the possible number of grandkids I probably already got spread 'round this county. You keep it zipped tight with this one, son, 'cause she's a paying tenant, and I got a reputation to uphold in this county." Wyatt's words shot out like bullets. "I can smell supper; so where's your mama?" Wyatt asked, his words coming out somewhat more gently.
"She's with our paying tenant," mocked Junior, "helping her fix up the apartment. She'll be back in a few minutes-oh, and the tennant will be having supper with us tonight." Wyatt fired his son a warning glance and then went to wash up.
The conversation over supper ranged mainly around where Colleen was born, what her family did, and what brought her to this out-of-the-way place. Colleen had been born and reared in Onslow County, down on the coast. Her father had come from near Asheville, and she still had some family there; but as her daddy had served in the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, he had taken a liking to the warmer climate of coastal North Carolina. He had met Colleen's mother in Jacksonville and they now ran a motel on the intra-coastal waterway, not far from Swansboro. As is so often the case, the child gravitates towards what the parent has left; thus Colleen, having spent many a school holiday in the mountains near Asheville, felt she would like to try living in that area as she began her teaching career.
After a brief pause in conversation, Ginny spoke-to no one in particular: "Our boy Frank was at Camp Lejeune ..."
"Really? Where is he now?"
"Frank died, Colleen," Wyatt quickly interjected. "He was killed in Korea." Wyatt looked at Ginny, wanting to reprove her for bringing up the subject of their dead son, but Ginny was staring off into the middle distance, pushing her food languidly around her plate.
Excerpted from Doing Time by Jack N. Lawson Copyright © 2010 by Jack N. Lawson. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wrongly convicted bride bearing a cruel past begins "doing time" in a mid-1970's rural South prison, just when an aspiring chaplain shows up to begin a pastoral internship. First time novelist Jack Lawson uses this fabric to weave a tale of triumph over terror and travail, with irony and home-spun humor. The author knows well both the Southern Mind" and "Shakespeare on Time"-- and I loved the contrast. A short Shakespearean line about Time "opens the curtain" for each chapter like choral fates in a Greek play. Lawson takes it from there with vignettes of pathos and incisive hilarity -- richly expressed in a way only "Southern" can. Lawson leaves us with so much more than a tale well told. By the last page, we come to know we do not "spend time" so much as Time spends us; that Time silently ensnares us into literal and allegorical prisons; and those prisons bar us from our hopes and dreams. In the end, Lawson's unfurling tapestry reveals the rescue -- selfless, unconditional Love liberates us from Time's prisons. Well would the end allow the Bard to invoke a short epilogue -- "Love's not Time's fool". (Sonnet 116, line 10) A great time is had reading Doing Time! Steve52
What a interesting story and riveting reading for a first time novelist. The author has shed light on life in an abusive family and the woes that come with it. Once I started, I could not stop reading.
I did not want to put this book down! The author does a great job of bringing to light how abusive men effect women and their entire family and how healing and transformation takes place when kind and loving men treat women the way they deserve! When Annabell Lee goes to prison (she was not guilty) we get to see how life is behind bars. I thoroughly enjoyed the story!