From Volume 1, issue 1, 2017
A short Story
The path to reconciliation must begin with the act of confession.—Soon-Chan Rah1
In the summer of 1960 I was eight years old and lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most summers I would spend a month or more at my grandparents’ house in Wilmar, a small, south Arkansas town in Drew County known as “The Home of Tall Pines and Pink Tomatoes.” The soil was red and sandy, and we were near enough to the Louisiana border to have Spanish Moss lend its distinctive grayish-green mystery as it lurked, hanging from the branches of large, live oak trees. The humidity was always on the edge of bursting into rain; the water was so soft you could never quite dry off or feel clean after a bath. I can still taste the faint combination of salt and pine sap in the air.
Each day I woke to the sound of multiple roosters crowing. I got out of bed to help my grandmother and great-grandmother feed the chickens; collect the eggs; dust the house; make biscuits, cakes and pies; and look forward to having a Pepsi-and-vanilla-ice-cream-float every day at 10:00 am and again at 3:00 pm. They called it a Tea Party. Sometimes I would roam the gravel pits and the pine woods with my cousins, playing cowboys and Indians or re-enacting famous battles from the Civil War, especially those few battles that the Confederate Rebels actually won. At night I slept in the same lumpy bed in the same room that my father and his two brothers grew up in. I read Tom Swift novels and Hardy Boys mysteries by flashlight under the covers.
Around 5:00 pm every day I would climb in the old Ford pickup truck and ride with my grandfather a couple of miles to the farm so we could feed the cattle. I always took my treasured pocket knife. Cutting the twine on bales of hay stored in the loft and tossing it down to the cattle feeders made me feel like a real ranch-hand, maybe even a real cowboy. Once in a while I would accompany him to the “bank” he owned, although I never felt like a real banker. The word “bank” is in quotes because it wasn’t a real bank. The technical name was “exchange and trust,” a forerunner of the modern savings and loan. He couldn’t loan money, but he could keep it for people in his cavernous, walk-in safe. I guess he was pretty good at double-entry bookkeeping.
Nonetheless, he was known as the town’s banker, and the water commissioner, and the school superintendent, and I think he was even mayor for a time. Everyone called him Mr. Dick. When he died they found a little pocket ledger with a list of initials and dollar amounts next to them. The best guess is that he did loan money—his own. A stern father to his sons, he must have been generous to a fault with everyone else.
The town was built alongside a single highway that ran east and west. Railroad tracks ran parallel to the highway about fifty yards to the south. They had a Methodist, Baptist 2
and a Presbyterian Church and my grandfather attended all three. They had the “bank,” two general/feed stores, a gas station, a school, a flour mill with a couple of grain silos, a sawmill with endless mountains of pine wood chips, and a United States Post Office. My grandfather’s brother was postmaster. In a town of 500 people our family was about as privileged as you could get.
There was also the Star Café, one of my grandfather’s less than successful entrepreneurial ventures, which may have been a less than transparent attempt to get my great-grandmother out of the house and keep her busy. A little mother-in-law drama was about all the drama they had. Except for the night when the flour mill burned down there wasn’t a lot of excitement. Idyllic.
500 people. As near as I can tell, about 300 of them were black. Sixty percent. You can do the math. You already know where the black people lived—south of the railroad tracks in little shacks and pre-fabricated houses. Some of the white folks had pre-fab homes as well, and some lived on the other side of the tracks, but they also tended to have acreage around their houses where they could grow tomatoes to sell to the grocery chains and the Campbell Soup folks in the county seat, and pine trees they could harvest every 15 or 20 years for big money. That kind of real estate was rare for black residents, if it existed at all.
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