Common Cause

Dictionary of Texisms:

Conniptions – a fit; getting upset

One day I came back to the classroom early from recess. Jackie McLanahan was alone in the room, supposedly doing her makeup homework. Only she wasn’t. She was reading a book I recognized. “Oh,” I said, “you’re reading Sherlock Holmes?”

She looked up, eyes blazing and jaw set, on the verge of having conniptions. “Yeah? What of it?”

“Nothing,” I said, hoping to defuse the tension. “They’re my favorite books.”

She stared at me for a second, as if she thought maybe I was toying with her. I guess being a favorite of Mrs. Kleiner made me suspect.

“Are you pulling my leg?” she said.

“I’m not. I swear.”

“Okay, so…”

“I think you have good taste,” I said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” she said. “About you, I mean.”

“Which ones have you read?”

Jackie ticked off a half dozen Sherlock Holmes stories, some of which I hadn’t heard of. I was impressed. “Have you read The Hound of the Baskervilles?” she asked me. I shook my head. “It’s the best!” she said, and at that moment she let down her guard. Her face was animated, eyes bright, and I glimpsed a different side of her. This budding delinquent was a girl who loved to read – maybe as much as I did. “There’s this old legend about a killer hound that lives on the moors and when somebody dies, the word gets out that the hound killed him. Only it’s not a hound at all.”

“Don’t tell me the rest,” I said quickly. “I want to read it.”

“I’ve got a copy at home if you want.”

“Really? You’d let me borrow it?” Considering that we’d never spoken before this moment, it struck me as a generous gesture.

“Sure,” she said. “Why not? I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“Thanks.” 

It also seemed polite to return the gesture. “Do you like science fiction?” I asked.

“Some of it,” Jackie said. “I like Asimov and Heinlein and Bradbury. But a lot of the rest of them are dull. Boys with toys in space.”

“I’m partial to Heinlein,” I said.  Have you read Starship Troopers?”

“No.”

“Then I could trade you. A Heinlein for a Holmes.”

She grinned. “Okay. You’re on.”

When I got home that afternoon, I found Starship Troopers and pulled it from the bookcase. I carefully printed my name in ink – so it couldn’t be erased – on the inside front cover.  I had never done that with a book before – but then, I had never let anyone else borrow one of my books before. It seemed like a reasonable precaution to mark it, just in case someone forgot to return it.

At school the next day, I spotted Jackie on the playground before class started and approached her with book in hand. “Oh good,” she said, “you remembered!”  She took the paperback from my hands and stared at the cover. “Fantastic!” she said. “I brought something for you too.”  She reached into her knapsack and pulled out a thick paperback. On the cover were the unmistakable images of Holmes and Watson.  I opened it. Pasted to the inside front cover was a bookplate that read, “From the Library of,” and in its center, printed by hand in ink, was “Jackie McLanahan.”

She noticed me looking at the bookplate. “Just in case,” she said, sounding apologetic.

“I see we think a lot alike,” I said, and I pointed to my name on the inside cover of my book. “Just in case.”

The bell rang at that moment, so we ended our conversation and filed into the building.

It was several days later before we spoke again. “How are you liking Starship Troopers?” I asked her.

“It’s good,” she said. “I would have finished already but my mother made me practice piano.  Is it okay to keep it until Thursday?”

“Sure,” I said. “Take as long as you need. I should be finished with the Sherlock Holmes by then.”

“Are you having any nightmares about giant hounds?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “Did you?”

“No, of course not. I just wondered.”

True to her word, on Thursday before the opening bell, she returned my book. “What did you think?” I said. The bell rang.

“Let’s talk about it at recess,” she said.

I brought Starship Troopers with me when I went outside for recess, but I didn’t see Jackie. I thought perhaps she was in detention again, and my stomach churned with a  mix of feelings – disappointment at being left alone, anger if I was being stood up, and sadness that she was being punished again for whatever reason. These thoughts were swirling around in my head  as I walked slowly toward the ball field, where a game of kickball was starting up, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Did you forget?” said Jackie.

“Hey! No, I thought maybe you were stuck in detention.”

“Ha! Lucky me, I had a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card today.”

“And you used it for me? I am touched.”

“Maybe. Maybe a little touched in the head.” She winked.

“I think I might be in good company, then.”

“May be.” She grinned, and I couldn’t help grinning back.

We sat cross-legged underneath a tree where we could watch for any runaway kickballs without getting drawn into the game. We shared our thoughts about the book, and Robert Heinlein, and science fiction, and anywhere else the conversation wandered. Jackie was excellent company. She had some strong opinions, but she had good reasons to back them up.  She was also interested in what I thought.

It’s mysterious, really. I’ve had friends before, but never what you might call a best friend. Yet with Jackie, something just clicked. And I could see it was mutual. It was like we had always known each other, always liked each other, and always would like each other. It felt nice.

Barbershop, September 1962

“Norbert, you hear about that nonsense down at Ole Miss?”

“Yeah, I hear about it, same as you. Can’t avoid it. It’s all the evening news wants to talk about.”

“That crazy nigger like to get himself killed, is what I think.”

“He’s got some folks stirred up, that’s for sure.”

“Now I hear they’re bringing in U.S. marshals to get that boy registered. That’s an awful lot of trouble just so one colored boy can go to Ole Miss.”

“Yeah.”

“You know what I can’t figure out?  What in the world is a nigger supposed do with a college education? He’s still just a nigger – just a more uppity nigger.”

“Why would he want to go to Ole Miss, anyway? There’s plenty of nigra colleges that’d be happy to have him. Like those two nigra colleges up in Marshall. You remember when they made such a big to-do year before last with their sit-ins at Woolworth’s?”

“Didn’t they fire a bunch of nigra professors?”

“They fired one for being a Communist. Probably should have fired a darn sight more. Communists and outside agitators gone and got them young bucks all aggravated.”

“But they were a big success. Now Woolworth’s gone and closed their lunch counters, so they don’t serve anybody – but they don’t serve them equally.”

“Well a nigra at a nigra college is one thing. A nigra at Ole Miss is a whole ‘nother thing altogether.”

“Somebody liable to get killed if they don’t settle down.”

“You’re not kidding. Mm-mm-mm.”

A Spy in the Barbershop

Dictionary of Texisms:

            Dumb as a box of rocks – not too bright. Variation – dumb as a box of hammers.

Once a month, whether I need it or not, Mom insists that I get a haircut. So every month, whether I need it or not, I have the privilege of hearing the barbers engage each other and their adult male customers in a lively discussion of current events.  

My regular barber, Norbert, is gruff. I suppose if my name was Norbert, I might be gruff too.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know my name; when it’s my turn, he waves at his chair and says, “Hop on up, Sport.” He calls all boys Sport. I once saw him give a girl a haircut, and he called her “Missy.” In the early days Norbert would ask me if I wanted a crewcut (I don’t), and he never fails to ask if I want my sideburns “long like Elvis.” Other than that, Norbert assumes I have nothing valuable to say and ignores me.

Norbert, on the other hand, has a lot to say, as do Tony and Jerry. Grandpa used to wait for me during my haircuts, but now he’s taken to dropping me off because, as he puts it, “Every one of those clowns is dumb as a box of rocks, and I can’t abide their ignorant blathering. If I stay I’m tempted to argue with them, and that’s a waste of good breath.”

I’m not tempted to argue, since they don’t think kids know anything. To make it so I can abide it, I imagine that I’m not just a customer but a spy, listening carefully and taking mental notes  so I can understand the pulse of public opinion in Rusty Springs. It’s a dangerous job, but I think I’m the man for it.

The New Kid

The New Kid

Dictionary of Texisms:

Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers – fidgety, jumpy.

It only took Jackie McLanahan three weeks to become a standout in our class. And not in a good way.

If I had to come into a classroom full of strangers, I’d be nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers. I think I would lay low for a while and try to get to know the situation. I expected Jackie McLanahan to blend in with the quiet girls, the ones who never raise their hands when Mrs. Kleiner asks a question, and never ask questions of their own, and try to make themselves invisible when Mrs. Kleiner is calling on people at random. Well, that’s what I would do, anyway. Jackie McLanahan took a slightly different approach.

Mrs. Kleiner was at the blackboard talking with Texas pride about our glorious state, as she often did, and how Texas was Number One in oil, gas, cotton and just about everything important, when Jackie raised her hand.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“Texas doesn’t have a Broadway musical named for it, but Oklahoma does.”

(Did I mention that Jackie came from Oklahoma?)

“Thank you, Jackie,” Mrs. Kleiner said, sarcastically. “I guess other states just have to grab their little bit of glory wherever they can.”

Jackie’s face flushed. She raised her hand again.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“It says in the Bible that pride is a sin.”

“Yes, but what does that –“

Then Mrs. Kleiner stopped, because she realized the answer to her own question, and she didn’t much care for it. This time it was her face that colored.

“Thank you, Jackie,” she snapped. She stared intensely at Jackie, who stared back just as hard. It was almost like two wrestlers circling each other, looking for a weakness.

Finally Mrs. Kleiner turned away and resumed the lesson.

Apparently, that was round one. Within another week it was no holds barred and Jackie was walking the well-worn path towards being branded a juvenile delinquent. There were testy exchanges in class, with Mrs. Kleiner telling Jackie she had a bad attitude and lacked respect. By week three, Jackie was forced to miss recess every second or third day, so she could do the homework she hadn’t turned in.

Missing recess was a regular punishment, for boys.  But a girl? It never happened.  Not only that, but the boys who got punished were usually the real dumbbells, the ones who had trouble spelling “cat” if you spotted them two letters.  Jackie was no nitwit. If anything, she was too smart for her own good. The prospect of having our first female juvenile delinquent added an undercurrent of excitement to class each day.

On the face of it, Jackie was an exact opposite of me.  I always did all my homework assignments, Jackie did some or none. I was one of Mrs. Kleiner’s favorites, Jackie her least favorite.

So much for first impressions.

The Other Side of the Tracks

The Other Side of the Tracks

Dictionary of Texisms

Besdam: of superior quality.

I had finished my homework for the day and was sitting on my bed, reading a mystery, when Grandpa knocked on the door. “I’m going to pick up supper,” he said. “You want to come with me?”

“What are you getting?”

“It’s a surprise,” he said. “But if you come with me, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Okay, I’m in,” I said. Grandpa has this talent for taking an ordinary errand and turning it into an adventure.

I got in the front seat of the Chevy and Grandpa started it up. In a few minutes we were downtown. Then we kept driving, on streets that weren’t familiar to me. There were corner stores that looked like little more than shacks. Many of the houses had paint peeling off, and some of the front porches were in bad shape. Several vacant lots were overgrown with weeds and tiny trees.

“Where are we going, Grandpa?” I asked.

“We are going,” he said, “to the foremost barbecue emporium in Rusty Springs.”

“That sounds good,” I said. “Does it have a name?”

“The Silver Moon. And here it is.”

He pulled to a stop at the curb. I looked for a sign but didn’t see one. I didn’t see anything that looked like it might be a restaurant – just houses on both sides of the street.

Where is it?” I said.

“Well, come on and I’ll show you.”

We got out. We looked both ways and crossed the street, with Grandpa heading in the general direction of a garage-shaped building set back from the street. “Do they have a sign?” I said.

“Don’t need one,” he said. “Everybody knows where it is. And if you don’t know, then you don’t need to know.”

“Grandpa, that doesn’t make sense.”

“You know what would make good sense to me right about now?” he said. “Some barbecued ribs.” He opened the screen door to the garage, and we stepped inside.

I was instantly overwhelmed by the aroma of grilled meat lathered in sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. The heavenly smell was coming from a giant firepit to the right of the door. Above the fire, on steel racks, were chickens and huge slabs of what must have been beef and pork. Smoke wafted up from the fire and enveloped the meats.

A counter separated the fire pit from the rest of the garage.  A Negro girl with hair braided in pigtails, who looked to be about my age, was behind the counter.

“Good evening, Miss,” said Grandpa. “My friend and I would like to order some barbecue.”

She didn’t say a word but turned and ran in the opposite direction, further back into the building.

In a minute a heavy-set, bald Negro man came out. “How can I help – why Professor Anderson! What a pleasure to see you!”

“Hello, Willie. How’re you doing?” They shook hands across the counter, both smiling broadly.

“Willie, let me introduce you to my grandson, Alec. Alec, Willie Washington, the besdam barbecue chef in East Texas – hell, maybe all of Texas.”

“Well, I don’t know as I’d go that far,” Willie said. He turned to me and offered me his huge brown paw to shake. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said.

“Willie and I got to be friends when he worked at the college,” Grandpa said. “But now he’s found his true calling, and the world is the better for it.”

Willie smiled at me and winked. “He do go on, don’t he?”  I had to grin.

Grandpa and Willie commenced to catch up on each other’s lives while I looked around the Silver Moon. Aside from the smoking flesh, there wasn’t much to see – four wooden picnic tables and wooden benches made up the dining area. Two of them were occupied by customers, all of them Negroes, picking up ribs and chicken legs with their fingers and grinning like they were getting a taste of the Great Beyond. The wooden walls were unpainted and unadorned. There were no tablecloths, and the knives and forks were plastic.  If Mom had been here, it would have been hate at first sight. Maybe that’s why Grandpa invited me to come along instead.

I must have been daydreaming, because the next thing I knew, Grandpa was holding a big brown paper bag and saying his goodbyes to Willie. “You come back anytime, Alec,” Willie said, as we waved and walked out the screen door.

Grandpa placed the bag in the back seat and started up the car. The pungent aroma of barbecue sauce filled the car. “Grandpa, where are we?” I said.

“We’re still in Rusty Springs,” he said.

“I’ve never seen this part.”

“I expect not,” said Grandpa. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘the other side of the tracks?'”

“Yes.”

“Well, this is it right here,” he said. “This is where the colored people live.”

“Oh – this is Coontown?”

“Boy,” he said sharply, “don’t ever let me hear you use that word again! It’s disrespectful and mean.”

I wasn’t used to hearing Grandpa speak harshly to me. “Yes, sir,” I said.  

Grandpa’s voice returned to his normal mellow tone. “I know you didn’t mean nothing by it,” Grandpa said. “That’s what ignorant, hateful people call it, and you didn’t know. But now you know better. Don’t ever use hateful names. Colored people aren’t coons, and they aren’t niggers. They’re just people like you and me.  They want the same things everybody wants, but they don’t have an easy time of it, particularly in Texas. They don’t get the best jobs, and they don’t get to live in the best houses or go to the best schools. So let’s not make it any harder on them, all right?  Show them respect, because that’s what’s right. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

We drove in silence for a few minutes.

“You know, that place doesn’t look like much, but I’ll tell you what: once you dig into these barbecued ribs, I guarantee, you’re going to look at the Silver Moon with a whole different outlook.”

Grandpa was right about that, too.

In the days after the trip to the Silver Moon, I started to see my little world with different eyes. Or to put it another way, I started to notice what was missing: anybody who wasn’t white. All my classmates were white. All my teachers were white. All our neighbors were white. The only Negroes that ever ventured into the neighborhood were the maids, who walked from the homes where they worked to the bus stop.  The 1962 World Almanac says Rusty Springs has a population that is 48% white,  45% Negro, and 7% foreign born (which probably means Mexican). But in my neighborhood, Negroes and Mexicans are invisible.

I didn’t expect students in my school to find this disturbing, or even mildly interesting. Most of my classmates were not rabid, fire-breathing, sheet-wearing racists. They were just your everyday, garden variety racists, who thought nothing of using such expressions as “mighty white of you” or such witty rejoinders as, “And speaking of black loafers, how’s your old man?”

But I did hold out some hope for educators – you know, the people who care about spreading knowledge and truth? In class, we happened to be discussing what people earned. Mrs. Kleiner said that as important as teachers are to the world, it’s a shame that teachers in Rusty Springs are paid less than garbagemen.  I saw an opportunity to ask a question that had been on my mind for several weeks.

“Mrs. Kleiner,” I said, “why do Negroes get paid less than white people?”

She hesitated only a second. “It’s because Negroes don’t need as much money to live on,” she explained, before abruptly changing the topic.

That didn’t sound quite right to me. Not surprisingly, Grandpa had a different take on it. “Well, it’s no wonder she doesn’t earn more than a garbageman,” he said at supper, “with the kind of garbage she’s dumping on her students. What a load of cr–“

“Daddy,” Mom interjected.

“I was just going to say, what a load of garbage.”

“So why do Negroes get paid less?” I persisted.

“Are you familiar with the golden rule?” Grandpa said.

“Do unto others as -“

“No, the other golden rule,” he said. “He who has the gold, rules. White people have all the gold. They run the government, they own the businesses, and it works very well for them. If they can pay people less, they get to keep more money for themselves.”

“But why are there no Negroes at my school?”

“Because for years, state government adopted a policy of  ‘separate but equal.’ Supposedly, it means two equal school systems, one for whites and one for Negroes. Separate but deplorable is closer to the truth. Anyway, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years back that ‘separate but equal’ isn’t constitutional anymore. The news just doesn’t seem to have reached Rusty Springs.”

Mom, who had been listening quietly, said, “But Daddy, don’t you think they’ll have to integrate the schools eventually?”

“Sure, it’ll happen, because it’s right and because it’s the law.  Just depends on how long it takes ‘eventually’ to get here.”

“I would bet sooner than later,” she said.

“Well, you may be right,” Grandpa said, “but I have my doubts. I never bet against the stubborn cussedness of Texans. You’ll lose every time.”