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Revisit: The day I lost my marbles . . .

I originally posted this story in July of 2010. I came across it while browsing today and enjoyed it so much that I decided to share it with the multitudes of people that overlooked it. I know they overlooked it because it garnered only one comment and that was from a lovely lady that lives in Montgomery, and she probably felt compelled to comment because she is my niece and I am the only surviving uncle from her mother’s side of the family. Actually, if I were a female I would be the only surviving aunt from her mother’s family—yep, of the original seven children I am the last one standing, and yes, I’m a bit lonely!

This is an intriguing—albeit rather sad—tale of one small boy’s attempt to establish and cement friendship and perhaps help to promote cordiality between races in the deep South at a time long before the marches between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama and long before civil rights legislation was passed by Congress. Well, alright, I confess that I was also trying to add to my collection of marbles and because of my politically incorrect older sister I failed miserably, and instead found my collection reduced by a significant number, including some of my favorite pieces. Bummer!

The day I lost my marbles

Many years ago in Columbus, Mississippi on the corner of Fourth Street South and Ninth Avenue South there was a large colonial style two-story house with stately columns and a balcony, a house converted into apartments during World War II to accommodate the influx of military personnel from Columbus Air Force Base, a pilot training center. I haven’t been in that section of town for many years—it may still be standing, or it may have been razed and a modern brick structure erected on that lot.

I lived there for several months with my mother, my youngest sister Dot—short for Doris—and my stepfather. Jessie, my oldest sister, also lived there in a one-room apartment that shared a bathroom with another tenant. That house holds many memories for me, several of which I have posted on my blog—some of those memories are pleasant and some are not so pleasant. Click here to read about The tomato tempest, a story that includes a visit to Alabama, a sharecropper family, a suicide, an Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol, a recalcitrant young girl and a stepfather with a vicious temper.

The house was only two or three blocks from a section of the city that was called by many names, mostly names that are not used in polite society today. In these modern times of political correctness, certain words are voiced only by their first letter and the word word added, as in the N-word or the F-word or the Rword—the R stands for Republican, a word that some are reluctant to use in fear that they will looked upon as such.

I suppose that in today’s parlance, the neighborhood just beyond where I lived as a boy would be referred to as N-town, an area primarily comprised of black families—the term African-American was unknown then, unknown at least in the circles in which I moved. I’ve never understood the rationale for expressing something like that—if it is true that the thought is as bad as the deed, then saying the N-word instead of the actual word in nothing more than an attempt to cover up the real word, and it’s not covered up—try it—just say the N-word to yourself and check the mental image it creates, both in the speaker and the listener. Let’s face it—it’s a cop out—if you’re going to think it, you might as well say it.

I knew only one person that lived in N-town, a black lady that came to the house every weekday to care for my niece, Jessie’s young daughter, then just a toddler. Millie also cleaned, cooked and ironed for Jessie over a period of many years at several different locations in the city. I never knew Millie’s last name—we simply called her Millie, possibly the diminutive form of Millicent. An unmarried lady, she lived with her family just a short walk from our house. I vividly remember numerous Saturday nights when Dot and I walked with Jessie and our mother to Millie’s house. Jessie and our mother, along with Millie and her mother formed a quartet and sang church hymns, A Capella, all the old favorites and they sometimes belted out fast-paced tunes that contrasted sharply with the well-known songs—I suppose they were songs popular at the time—pop tunes, so to speak.

The group stayed in the house in inclement weather and neighbors came and sat and listened, and in fair weather they formed on the front porch and neighbors came and sat and listened. My sister and I stayed outside, both in inclement and fair weather, playing all the games children play in the evening—Kick the Can, Pussy in the Corner, Tag, Hide and Seek and others, and sometimes we sat on the porch and told stories, mostly ghost tales—and I’m here to say that those kids could spin some very scary stories!

Now that I’ve laid the scene, I’ll progress to the when, where, why and how I lost my marbles. I arrived home from school and Millie and my niece, Millie’s charge, were the only ones there. Left to my own devices, I swept an area of the front yard clean, drew a circle and began playing marbles. Soon after I began one of the kids from Millie’s neighborhood came by, watched my shooting for a few minutes and asked if he could play. I said yes, and the battle was joined—we played for keeps, meaning that when a shooter knocked one of the other shooter’s marbles out of the ring, that marble changed ownership—it now belonged to the one that caused it to go outside the ring. At first I seemed to be in control, but as the game progressed I realized that I had agreed to a play-for-keeps game with a kid that was a much better shooter than I.

So did I call off the game? Not on your life! I had a reputation to support and I worked very hard to reclaim some of my marbles that now resided in the black kid’s pockets. I was almost marbleless when Jessie came home from work. She briefly watched us at play and then entered the house, and a short time later Millie came out and headed for home. Then Jessie returned to the front yard—Jessie, my oldest sister and the sister that often gave orders that I was required to obey. She ordered me into the house, and I told my new friend—my adversary—that I had to go in, and he headed for home also, his pockets bulging with marbles that earlier had been in my pockets.

Jessie told me later that it was not seemly for me to be seen playing with a N-word child, that it would look odd to our neighbors. I pointed out to her that I had lost most of my marbles, and that I appeared to be on a winning streak at the time she stopped the game. Her response to that? You shouldn’t have been playing for keeps—that’s gambling, and gambling’s a sin. I didn’t bother to argue that I played with the black kids on Saturday evenings. I knew that the difference was the difference between day and night, between light and dark. I was in full view during daylight hours, subject to the stares of disapproving blacks as well as whites, and in the darkness of the evening I was not subjected to such stares.

That’s it—that’s how I lost my marbles, a loss that I was never to recoup. I never saw that kid again—sometimes I think that he may have been a ringer, a professional sent in from another area to pick up some easy loot in the form of marbles, similar to what Paul Newman did in his movie, The Hustler—bummer!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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Revisit—11th Street South and a rabbit . . .

I recently visited this posting and found it to be a fascinating and exceptional piece of literature, so I decided to re-post it for the benefit of the throngs that have been fortunate enough to have found my blog in the interim. It is my humble and modest opinion, with all seriousness set aside, that any reading or re-reading of this classic tale will enchant and delight everyone that passes this way. It’s a long read, but it’s highly educational, entertaining and well worth your time and effort—honest!

11th Street South and a rabbit . . .

When I left Plato’s realm of spirits—mind you, I was and I remain one of Plato’s ideal philosophical souls—and entered this world, I became part of a family that included my mother, one brother and five sisters, three living sisters and two dead, and no father—well, of course I had a father, but my parents were divorced a few months before I was born, a situation that technically makes me a little bastard. That technicality doesn’t bother me, even though it has been verbally confirmed many times by many people over the course of my life. Those verbal confirmations have decreased significantly since I retired from the workforce and relinquished my responsibilities and duties as a manager and supervisor of federal employees.

The Great Depression was in full swing when I left the world of souls and appeared on this planet. My brother Larry was away from home, gainfully occupied in building roads in Utah and other western states, roads that in his words started nowhere and ended nowhere. Early in the 1930s he joined the CCC—Civilian Conservation Corps—one of the alphabet organizations created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and helped build highways and tunnels in the western part of the United States, systems that would attract many millions of people in the future to our national parks. Following his stint with the CCC, he joined the U.S. Navy at the start of World War II and remained overseas through most of that conflict and never returned to the family except for short visits.

I have only retained two events over the first six years of my life that included my brother. The first memory is one of us fishing in a creek that meandered along near the house my family lived in at the time, a rental house owned by a local doctor named Box, the doctor that delivered me. Located on the outskirts of Vernon, Alabama, it was referred to as the old Box place—my family moved there from my place of birth, the old home place located some five miles south of town—I was little more than a toddler at the time. If you like, you can click here to read about the monumental event of my birth, Unto you this day a child was born. It’s a well-told tale with tons of family history and well worth your time—trust me!

The other memory involves a washtub in the front yard, filled with ice and beer, and my family enjoying and celebrating my brother’s visit. It also involves a partially filled beer left on a table within reach of a small night-shirted boy, and a set of high steps leading up to the front door of our house. The steps were necessary because the house was built on brick piers in an area prone to flooding. I have a vivid memory of standing on the top step in full view of the family gathered around the tub of ice and beer in the front yard and tossing the contents of my stomach—whatever food I had ingested along with the warm beer I had consumed—all over the steps.

Bummer!

I lived at the old Box place with my mother and three sisters. My mother and the two older sisters worked at a garment factory in Columbus, Mississippi, a city thirty miles west of Vernon, just across the Alabama-Mississippi state line. The women walked a short distance to and from town Monday through Friday and traveled to and from their work site on a county school bus set aside for that purpose. They necessarily left at an early hour and arrived home at a late hour every evening.

I and my youngest sister, a child just 18 months older than I, were left in the care of a lady that lived within walking distance. She came to our house early each morning and waited until the women left for work before escorting my sister and me to her house—she returned us home just before the women were due to arrive from work. With her husband and a passel of kids—my mother’s term—ranging from toddlers to young adults, she lived, loved, maintained her family and helped perform the many tasks involved in farming.

Whether they were the owners or were sharecroppers will never be known, but my guess is that they farmed on shares with the owners. Today the family would be called African-American, but at that time they were called everything except that hyphenated politically correct term—my family referred to them as black folks, or blacks, or that black family—other terms were available and quite popular at the time, but none were used by my family. This was a black family that included two white children five days every week, a boy and a girl, both preschoolers, two children that shared playtime and mealtime and after-dinner naps on the front porch with the family and loved every minute of every day.

My family left Vernon and moved to Columbus, Mississippi when I was five years old. My sister entered the first grade on our arrival there, and I entered the first grade the following year. That year is so filled with memories that I must reserve it for a separate posting, and I will include in this posting a third memory of my brother Larry.

He came home for a Christmas visit from his labors under the auspices of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. That winter Columbus, Mississippi had an unusually heavy snowfall, and my brother took me on a rabbit hunt, armed only with a broomstick—just the stick, no broom. The broom part was badly worn and my brother sawed off that part. We walked a short distance from our house to a snow-covered field that served as a dumping ground for discarded items such as broken furniture, mattresses, wire-coil bed springs, old stoves and other such refuse. Yes, we lived on the south side of the city, the part that was known as the wrong side of town, an area subjected to such dumping.

This is how one hunts rabbits after a heavy snowfall—one takes a broomstick and pounds on any pile of junk where a rabbit might choose to hide, and chases the rabbit when it leaves its cover. In a heavy snowfall rabbits can’t run, so they tend to flee by burrowing under the snow rather than jumping in and out of it. Ergo, the mighty hunter simply follows the unseen rabbit as it ripples the surface of the snow by burrowing under it, estimates the location of the rabbit’s head—not a difficult task, not even for a southerner, and strikes with the broomstick a number of times, enough time sufficient to render the animal ready for skinning, cleaning and cooking.

My brother only found one rabbit with all his pounding, and that one did exactly as expected, and brother did exactly as narrated above, but landed just one blow with the stick. The rabbit’s forward motion was stopped, and on examination was found to be very much alive, only stunned by the blow but no more blows were struck. I pleaded with my brother to not kill it, and let me take it home as a pet.

And so it was. I carried a new-found pet rabbit home—I never knew whether it was male or female, but just for discussion I’ll say it was a female—perhaps I hoped for some baby rabbits. I had no way to secure her, neither inside the house nor outside, and one of my older sisters suggested I make a leash and tie her to a bedpost, and using a six-year old boy’s imagination, I did as suggested.

At this point the reader should probably keep a hankie or a box of Kleenex handy.

I fashioned a leash from a discarded pair of nylon stockings, those with the black seams running the length of the stockings, seams that ladies of the day were constantly adjusting to keep them straight on the backs of their legs. I knotted the stockings together, then secured one end of the leash to the cottontail’s neck and the other to a bedpost. My new-found pet could move around no farther than the length of nylon, so whatever deposits he made during the night would be restricted to a small area.

Okay, folks, here’s where you’ll need the hankie or the Kleenex. When I went to sleep my pet was warm and cuddly and full of life, but the next morning she was cold and stiff and dead, choked by the nylon that had tightened during the night with her circling around and around the bedpost.

I know, I know—I know just how you feel, but just blow your nose and wipe away your tears. It happened some 71 years ago, and I will say to you exactly what Lloyd Bridges said in the made-for-television movie Cold Sassy Tree. This is what he said in answer to his children when they learned he intended to marry his long-time office manager although his wife—their mother—had been dead less than a year. What he said was,

Well, she ain’t gonna get any deader!

And that rabbit ain’t gonna get any deader either, so dry your tears. I assure you that never again—not in all those years, not even once—have I strangled another rabbit by leaving it tied to a bedpost with a knotted pair of ladies’ nylons, nor have I ever strangled another rabbit by any other method, nor have I ever advised my children or the children of others to do such—in fact, largely because of that sad event I have strongly stressed that all should respect the value of life, both for humans and for the so-called lower orders of life.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2010 in Childhood, Family, Humor, neighbors, race, Uncategorized

 

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A cute joke promised: Playing catch-up . . .

In June of this year I posted a story about living for a time in an upstairs boarding house on College Street in Columbus, Mississippi and in closing the posting I promised to tell a cute joke told by an invalid widow in my mother’s care. This is my promise, excerpted from the original posting:

Oh, I’ve decided to save the story told by the invalid lady in the apartment house my mother managed, but stay tuned—it’ll show up in a future posting, and it’s really funny! Sadly though, it’s a clean joke—not even the suggestion of a bad word or thought in it, not one entendre in it, single, double or otherwise—bummer! To read the original posting click on the following URL:

https://thekingoftexas.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/college-street-301-12-a-boarding-house/

This is the joke:

The elderly widow that ran the boarding house was very hard of hearing, and she urged a young man, a new guest, to have more helpings of various items on the dinner table.

Widow: Sir, please have some more to eat.

Guest: No, thank you, ma’am, I’ve had sufficient.

Widow: What’s that, sir? You went a-fishing?

Guest: No, ma’am, I said I’ve had plenty.

Widow: You say you caught twenty?

Guest, under his breath: You old fool!

Widow: Oh, in a pool!

The lady that told that joke was bedridden, and it fell to my lot to sit with her, often for hours at a time, listening to her jokes and reading to her from the Bible. It was not an easy task. The room always smelled of medications and urine, and to compensate for the odors she liberally splashed some sort of toilet water all over the room as far as she could throw it—some of it appeared to have been directed at me, but perhaps that was my imagination. Yes, I am aware that toilet water is a misnomer, one that has fallen in use over the years—in this case it was not water from the toilet.

The lady had lots of stories and jokes, but the boarding house joke was one of her favorites. The joke was pretty funny for the first few times she told it, but over time it lost a bit—no, it lost all—of its freshness and its humor.

Speaking of the Bible—the invalid had a frequent visitor, an elderly woman that was said to have memorized the entire Bible and the New Testament, and spoke by rote in response to a request for any specific chapter and verse. I listened to her recitation on some of her visits. She always brought her Bible but it remained in her lap, closed—she never opened it. I can’t speak for the accuracy of her memories, but she never missed a beat with her response—no hesitation, no pauses, speaking in a strong voice, its volume rising and falling appropriately and its timbre changing to fit the meaning of the biblical passage.

The speaker was a black lady, an elderly Negro. Yes, black and Negro were two of the the terms that were used in those days, in the mid–1940s, to identify such persons. I had never heard the term African-American at that time and I seriously doubt that the black lady had ever heard it. And yes, a variety of other terms were used to identify the race of such persons, all derogatory and all demeaning—I wish I could say not by my family, but we tended to go with the flow. Even my mother, a goodhearted and kind lady that professed love for all others, took this stance: I like black people and I have nothing against them—just as long as they stay in their place.

Times have changed, and mostly for the better. I say mostly because most people, other than African-Americans—not all, but most of them—make every effort to avoid using those derogatory terms. However, apparently not all African-Americans are reluctant to use them, claiming such terms are their right to use and have entirely different meanings than when used by racial outsiders.

Go figure!

That’s the joke I promised, and that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!



 
1 Comment

Posted by on August 24, 2010 in Books, Humor, race, religion, segregation

 

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Four killed by an SUV? What make, what color, what model?

San Antonio’s only daily newspaper, the Express-News, is considered by conservatives to be liberal, and is considered by liberals to be conservative. I have my own opinion, but I’ll keep it in reserve for another posting, and I’ll let my viewers decide the paper’s political bent when more information is given on yesterday’s crash—Sunday, August 8, 2010—that killed four people. The front page article on the accident identified the dead, all occupants of a green Dodge Caravan, as an infant boy and an eleven-year-old girl in the rear seat, and two front-seat occupants, the driver and a passenger. The article stated that, “No names were released Sunday.”

The vehicle that crashed into the green Dodge Caravan while being chased by a San Antonio patrol officer was not identified by color or make or model, although it was readily available for identification—it landed upside down in a TV repair shop near the collision site. The article referred to the upside-down vehicle as an SUV, a term that was used nine times by the two female journalists that wrote the story.

Why? Why identify the minivan in such detail and no details on the SUV? Perhaps it was oversight on the part of the journalists, but that isn’t likely. I am of the opinion that the SUV is well-known by many citizens of San Antonio. Did it have bumper stickers or magnetic political signs on its doors? Was there some feature of the vehicle that would link it to one of San Antonio’s political personalities?

After causing the death of four people, the driver of the SUV suffered nothing more than a broken ankle. She is identified only as a female in her late 30s, and the article states that, The SUV’s driver  had warrants issued for her arrest on charges of theft, failure to produce proper identification and driving without a license, as well as several traffic citations, Benavides said.

The speaker was police Sgt. Chris Benavides.

I submit to you, my readers, that the SUV and its driver are connected in some way to a prominent person or organization in the city, and the editors of the Express-News are withholding identification pending a decision on what to release. If that seems to be a stretch, consider this:

Some years ago a woman was jogging while pushing her infant child in a stroller, and was attacked and killed, knifed to death. The woman lived long enough to identify her killer as a black male dressed in jogging clothing. An all-points bulletin was sent out for everyone to be on the lookout for a male dressed in jogging clothing—no mention of the killer being black, nor did the Express-News include that fact in its coverage of the incident.

That murder occurred in Olmos Park, one of the most up-scale areas in San Antonio. The odds of a black jogger being in that area were astronomical then, and are much on the same par today. I am certain that every non-black jogger encountered in that area on that day and on later days was stopped and questioned. I wonder how much time was spent on those stops that could have better been spent on looking for the black jogger.

In the case of the murdered woman, vital information was withheld for the purpose of political correctness. In the case of the four people killed by a woman in her late thirties driving an SUV, I consider the possibility that the public is being denied pertinent information for the same reason—political correctness, in this instance to protect some prominent person or persons or organizations.

I don’t know them personally, but I know of them because I am a resident of this city and I try to keep up with the times. I am aware of several prominent people in this city that are married to women that are in their late thirties. I await breathlessly for future facts on the incident.

I’ll get back to you with more details as they emerge—I promise!

I’m back, and with more details, just as I promised. The Express-News today identified the SUV and the driver and dashed all my suspicions and speculations that the driver may have been a well-known and well-connected person, eitherpolitically or otherwise. She is in fact very well-known, but known to the local police force—she has a rap sheet that includes other drunken driving charges, a jail sentence, several charges of prostitution and a host of other violations of city and state laws.

And the mystery of the SUV is no longer a mystery—the SUV that did all the damage, the vehicle that was identified nine times as an SUV in the original report, the SUV that landed upside down in a TV repair shop after broadsiding a green Dodge minivan and killing four people—the driver, her mother, the driver’s four-month old child and the driver’s eleven year old sister—yes, that SUV—was not an SUV.

It was a PT Cruiser.

You, the reader, may  wonder why I included the oddities of the initial report and my suspicions and speculations of the reasons why the so-called SUV was not identified color, make or model. The answer is simple—I worked too damned hard on those suspicions and speculations to toss them away, so I decided to let ’em ride and report the details that should have been printed in the original article. At the very least I should get credit for having a vivid imagination!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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An open letter to a Houston burglar . . .

Editor, Houston Post

Houston, Texas

Dear sir,

I was living near the Galleria in February, 1987 when my home, a rented duplex, was burglarized, and I wrote this open letter to a Houston burglar shortly after that happened. I relocated to another city late in February without having submitted it to you for consideration. However, the message is just as timely now as it was then, and in fact will always be applicable in the Houston metropolitan area.

I believe that I speak for most homeowners when I say that we should be allowed to use deadly force to protect our homes. We need to send a message to the criminal elements that prey on us. The television and VCR, the coins and jewelry and microwave and computer equipment and all the other items that afford the burglar a quick return for his efforts mean nothing. It is the potential for tragedy that exists in any burglary situation that should concern us. If this letter makes just one burglar turn aside or convinces just one homeowner to better protect himself against intrusion, then the effort will have been worthwhile.

An open letter to a Houston burglar

You probably don’t read the daily paper but there should be someone close to you that does, someone that knows about your criminal acts—a brother or a sister, your spouse or your sweetheart, your parents or your children or perhaps your friends. Perhaps one of them will give you this message. If you take heed it may save your life, and it might save me from committing a mortal sin.

I recently joined the legions of Houston residents that have been burglarized by you. The police said that mine was one of fifty or sixty homes in the metropolitan area that were hit on that day. I take no comfort in knowing that I was not alone, nor that I am just one of many that suffer the same indignity on any average day in Houston. I am outraged, and I am deeply concerned, both for your safety and mine.

That outrage and concern prompted this letter. For your sake and mine, you need to know how I feel and what my intentions are. Whether you are the one that committed the act or one that has the potential of committing a similar act, I must give you this message.

Don’t do it.

Don’t do it unless you are ready to suffer the consequences. Don’t do it unless you are prepared to be shot. I own a firearm and I know how to use it. I will shoot you or any other of your kind if you enter my home again.

I know that deadly force cannot be justified to defend property, that it can only be justified in the defense of my life or the life of another person. I am prepared to take my chances with a jury. Unless you are prepared to take your chances with me, don’t come back

You were in my kitchen and living room and bathrooms and bedrooms. You were not invited. My home is a sanctuary, just as yours is. I respect your home and your privacy. You violated the sanctity of mine. When I close my door I shut out the world, not just the noise and pollution but the world and its people. Whether the poorest hovel or the finest mansion, my home is inviolate. I will take any action necessary to protect it.

I was against capital punishment until you entered my home. I was for gun control until you entered my home. I am now for capital punishment and against gun control. Burglary of an occupied home should be punishable by death. Not on the second or third or fourth offense but on the first offense. It should make no difference whether daylight or dark, whether armed or unarmed, whether the occupants are at home or away. It should make no difference, because the potential for tragedy is the same.

The punishment should consider the potential as well as the actual consequences of the crime. Many people have died because they surprised you and others like you in the act of burglarizing their home, and many more will die for the same reason. That reason is simple. You are prepared to take any action necessary to ensure your success and your freedom. You are prepared. We are not.

Many of the items you took cannot be replaced, but enough have been replaced to make it worth your while to return. And the items you failed to take because you ran out of time or did not have room for are still here. But this time will be different.

This time I am prepared. I am ready for your return. This will be the only warning you will get. I consider it a fair warning, and certainly more than you gave before you ransacked my home. Don’t expect a command to halt or freeze or raise your hands. You will not hear it. You’ll hear the first shot, and maybe the second shot, and you may even hear the third. They will continue until the hammer clicks on a spent shell. It’s a heavy weapon, a magnum, so all the shots may not be required, but I must guarantee my own survival, and I assure you that I will be as thorough and certain in my task as you were in yours.

I have asked the editors to not print my name, but not because I fear you or want to set a trap for you. I don’t want you to consider this a challenge to see if you can do it again and get away with it. And I don’t want you to know my race or gender or nationality or ethnicity. I could be any one of the many thousands you have victimized in this city. I could be male or female, anglo or latin or black or oriental. We have all suffered at your hands. This way you won’t know which of us to avoid in order to continue your chosen career—that lack of knowledge could save your life.

The only way you can be sure is to stop burglarizing homes. It may not happen for a long time, and it may happen soon. If your next target is my home, it will happen then. Mine is not the only home in Houston defended by someone determined to protect loved ones and property. Mine is simply the only one that has given you fair warning.

Don’t do it. If you do, I will do my utmost best to make it the last home you will ever hit, the last challenge you will ever pick up, and the last breath you will ever take. You will be dead, and you will stay dead.

Believe it. For your sake and for mine, believe it.

 

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The day I lost my marbles . . .

Many years ago in Columbus, Mississippi, at the corner of Fourth Street South and Ninth Avenue South there was a large colonial style two-story house with stately columns and a balcony, a house converted into apartments during World War II to accommodate the influx of military personnel from Columbus Air Force Base, a pilot training center. I haven’t been in that section of town for many years—it may still be standing, or it may have been razed and a modern brick structure erected on that lot.

I lived there for several months with my mother, my youngest sister Dot—short for Doris—and my stepfather. Jessie, my oldest sister, also lived there in a one-room apartment that shared a bathroom with another tenant. That house holds many memories for me, several of which I have posted on my blog—some of those memories are pleasant and some are not so pleasant. Click here to read about The tomato tempest, a story that includes a visit to Alabama, a sharecropper family, a suicide, an Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol, a recalcitrant young girl and a stepfather with a vicious temper.

The house was only two or three blocks from a section of the city that was called by many names, mostly names that are not used in polite society today. In these modern times of political correctness, certain words are voiced only by their first letter and the word word added, as in the N-word or the F-word or the Rword—the R stands for Republican, a word that some are reluctant to use in fear that they will looked upon as such.

I suppose that in today’s parlance, the neighborhood just beyond where I lived as a boy would be referred to as N-town, an area primarily comprised of black families—the term African-American was unknown then, unknown at least in the circles in which I moved. I’ve never understood the rationale for expressing something like that—if it is true that the thought is as bad as the deed, then saying the N-word instead of the actual word in nothing more than an attempt to cover up the real word, and it’s not covered up—try it—just say the N-word to yourself and check the mental image it creates, both in the speaker and the listener. Let’s face it—it’s a cop out—if you’re going to think it, you might as well say it.

I knew only one person that lived in N-town, a black lady that came to the house every weekday to care for my niece, Jessie’s young daughter, then just a toddler. Millie also cleaned, cooked and ironed for Jessie over a period of many years at several different locations in the city. I never knew Millie’s last name—we simply called her Millie, possibly the diminutive form of Millicent. An unmarried lady, she lived with her family just a short walk from our house. I vividly remember numerous Saturday nights when Dot and I walked with Jessie and our mother to Millie’s house. Jessie and our mother, along with Millie and her mother formed a quartet and sang church hymns, A Capella, all the old favorites and they sometimes belted out fast-paced tunes that contrasted sharply with the well-known songs—I suppose they were songs popular at the time—pop tunes, so to speak.

The group stayed in the house in inclement weather and neighbors came and sat and listened, and in fair weather they formed on the front porch and neighbors came and sat and listened. My sister and I stayed outside, both in inclement and fair weather, playing all the games children play in the evening—Kick the Can, Pussy in the Corner, Tag, Hide and Seek and others, and sometimes we sat on the porch and told stories, mostly ghost tales—and I’m here to say that those kids could spin some very scary stories!

Now that I’ve laid the scene, I’ll progress to the when, where, why and how I lost my marbles. I arrived home from school and Millie and my niece, Millie’s charge, were the only ones there. Left to my own devices, I swept an area of the front yard clean, drew a circle and began playing marbles. Soon after I began one of the kids from Millie’s neighborhood came by, watched my shooting for a few minutes and asked if he could play. I said yes, and the battle was joined—we played for keeps, meaning that when a shooter knocked one of the other shooter’s marble out of the ring, that marble changed ownership—it now belonged to the one that caused it to go outside the ring. At first I seemed to be in control, but as the game progressed I realized that I had agreed to a play-for-keeps game with a kid that was a much better shooter than I.

So did I call off the game? Not on your life! I had a reputation to support and I worked very hard to reclaim some of my marbles that now resided in the black kid’s pockets. I was almost marbleless when Jessie came home from work. She briefly watched us at play and then entered the house, and a short time later Millie came out and headed for home. Then Jessie returned to the front yard—Jessie, my oldest sister and the sister that often gave orders that I was required to obey. She ordered me into the house, and I told my new friend—my adversary—that I had to go in, and he headed for home also, his pockets bulging with marbles that earlier had been in my pockets.

Jessie told me later that it was not seemly for me to be seen playing with a N-word child, that it would look odd to our neighbors. I pointed out to her that I had lost most of my marbles, and that I appeared to be on a winning streak at the time she stopped the game. Her response to that? You shouldn’t have been playing for keeps—that’s gambling, and gambling’s a sin. I didn’t bother to argue that I played with the black kids on Saturday evenings. I knew that the difference was the difference between day and night, between light and dark. I was in full view during daylight hours, subject to the stares of disapproving blacks as well as whites, and in the darkness of the evening I was not subjected to such stares.

That’s it—that’s how I lost my marbles, a loss that I was never to recoup. I never saw that kid again—sometimes I think that he may have been a ringer, a professional sent in from another area to pick up some easy loot in the form of marbles, similar to what Paul Newman did in his movie, The Hustler—bummer!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Catfish Alley, ten-cent hamburgers & the N-word . . .

The Varsity Theater was, and perhaps may still be, located at the intersection of Main and First Street. Main Street was the dividing line between north and south in Columbus, the county seat of Lowndes County, Mississippi. The first block of First Street South was called Catfish Alley, a block that was comprised mostly of black businesses—grocery stores, beer joints, rooming houses, eating places, clothing stores and other businesses—most, but not all, were owned and operated by blacks. Catfish Alley was the the prime gathering place for blacks, a mecca for those living inside and outside the city and from the countryside and from neighboring towns and cities. Shoppers and diners and gatherings included entire families during the daytime, but the block took on a different tone and attracted a different crowd after dark—rumors had it that more than one house of ill repute existed among the businesses in Catfish Alley, usually on the second floor of the two-story buildings.

Note that I use the term black—in those days there was no such term as African-American, at least not in the circles in which I moved. There were numerous terms used in those days to describe black people, used openly without fear of ridicule or persecution. The term most used was the same one used by black rappers today, a word that is never enunciated but identified only as the N-word, and at this point I will say, without hesitation, without rancor, without one ounce of racialism in my body and soul, an absence that was created many years ago through education, understanding and just plain living, that if one is going to say the N-word, one may as well use the real word. And in support of that choice I will quote the bard from Romeo and Juliet, followed by a well-known and oft-used religious homily:

That which we call a rose, by any other name will smell as sweet.

The thought is as bad as the deed.

I would add a third saying but this one is a no-no—it suggests that we should call a spade a spade, a phrase that has been around for more than 500 years. It means that we should speak honestly and directly about topics that others may avoid speaking about due to their sensitivity or embarrassing nature. According to Wikipedia, The phrase predates the use of the word “spade” as an ethnic slur against African-Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur. Click here to read more about the history of the phrase, call a spade a spade.

The N-word is a substitute for the word Negro, its pronunciation corrupted, of course, by the southerners’ predilection to pronounce words ending in an O, or with the sound of an O, by replacing the O sound with er. Window, for example, becomes winder, pillow becomes piller, tallow becomes taller, shallow becomes shaller, fellow becomes feller, hollow becomes holler, ad infinitum.

Can you guess how Negro is pronounced? Yep, for many southerners the N-word is not tainted with racialism—it is simply a descriptive term, just as other persons are described as white. The N-word ends with an O, so the O is dropped and an er is added. And I’ll grant you that others use the word in all its pejorative sense, expressing contempt, disapproval and hatred with all the pent-up passion and racism that has in the past plunged our nation into civil war and which still exists, and such use of the word is not limited to southerners. Our nation has come a long way, especially since 1964 and the civil rights movement, but we still have a long way to go.

Check out this sentence: That N-word feller that lives across the holler in that house with no winders has to wade across a shaller creek to get to the store to buy a new piller and some animal taller to make candles. Now please be honest—to thine own self be true, so to speak—do you understand how some southerners pronounce words ending in O, and do you understand how the word Negro became, to a southerner, the N-word?

With full knowledge that I have convinced nobody—not even one person—with my explanation of the N-word as used by southerners, I will continue with my dissertation—or posting if you insist—on Catfish Alley and ten-cent hamburgers:

First Street in Columbus is on a bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River, a stream that in those days was teeming with fresh-water catfish, a choice item in the diet of southerners regardless of their race—fried catfish was a staple. Local fishermen kept the cafes and fish stands along Catfish Alley well supplied, and people came from near and far to buy fresh catfish for home cooking and consumption, hence the name Catfish Alley.

The going rate for hamburgers on Catfish Alley when I was a boy was ten cents. Hamburger buns came only in one size in those days—small. The huge ones we have today either did not exist or had not yet come to our town, perhaps late as so many changes were—drive-in theaters, for example. Click here for a posting on the ins and outs of drive-in theaters. The ten-centers stood head-and-shoulders above today’s What-a-Burger and its Just a burger with its thin patty, one pickle slice, a bit of minced onions and a smear of mustard—the ten-cent patties were ample and came, if wanted, with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion and one’s choice of mustard, ketchup or mayo in any combination.

But it gets better, because Catfish Alley had a competitor. Just a brief walk brought me and my fellow students from our high school at noon to the river’s edge where a lady dispensed five-cent burgers from a portable kitchen on wheels, burgers that had no tomato or lettuce or pickles or onions but featured a substantial hamburger patty—fifteen cents would get a student two burgers and a Pepsi or RC Cola or a Coke or a Grapette—most of us went for the 12-ounce sodas rather than the 6-ounce brands, an easy choice since the cost was the same. Ah, for the good old days!

Does anyone remember this jingle?

Pepsi Cola hits the spot
Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot
Twice as much for a nickel, too,
Pepsi Cola is the drink for you!

I make no apology, neither for myself nor for fellow southerners for past or present use of the N-word. My only point is that the real word is sometimes used without any thought of hatred or disliking, without a trace of racialism in the speaker’s mind or heart. I abhor its use when it involves prejudice, hatred, contempt, disdain, disgust or any other contemptible emotion on the part of the speaker. And one more thought—look at the use of F-word in place of the real word—a listener hears F-word, but can you guess which word forms in the listener’s mind? Yep, that word, the one with the letters U, C and K following the F, just as the phrase N-word is converted to a word that adds an I, a couple of Gs, an E and an R, a word that resounds in the listener’s brain with far more resonance than N-word to the ears.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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