“First, about the sharecropper,” he had begun “The only few years for which I can say much about it was in the 1940s. It was a tough life at our house. A world of make-do, hand-me-downs, and home-made clothing mom put together on a foot-powered sewing machine. A Mason Rotary that her mom — my grandmother — had owned before she died, when mom was just sixteen.
“Our two mules, Doll and Kate, were coarse and creative, and always unrepentant bullies. And the equipment — plows and cultivators, among other things — were worn-out and unreliable. Then there was the weather. It was always about the weather, with its wet black mud or wet red clay or rock-hard furrows.
“Dad and I almost never had any time together, so he never got to take me hunting or fishing. He worked like a dog — lots of times from sun-up ‘til sundown. And he seldom talked to me much about anything, unless I had done something wrong that needed his attention. Sometimes I had a sort of personal game of watching and wondering what he was thinking about, and if he would say it out loud.
“We didn’t buy groceries very often because we grew most of the stuff we needed. We ate lots of pork and chicken. Now and then Dad would shoot a few quail or doves. And maybe some squirrels or a rabbit. All that tasted different, and I liked it. A few times momma fixed some stew beef. We had to buy that because we would have had to kill the milk cow to have our own. I never ate a hamburger until I was about twelve years old, after we moved to town. And lots of stuff was rationed because of the war. Chocolate, especially. Sometimes Mr. Taylor, at the store, would get a few Hershey bars and hold back two or three for us.
“Dad liked coffee but it was scarce too, and was sold mostly when it was still green beans. He would roast them in the oven and put them into a cloth sack and beat them to pieces with a hammer. Sometimes he and our neighbor would gather some acorns – red ones, I think – and do them the same as the coffee beans. They sifted the acorn husks out and mixed it all together. It made the coffee go lots further and they said you couldn’t tell the difference in the taste. Dad said it might have even made it better.
“We had a radio with a hay-wire aerial and a Sears Silvertone battery. We didn’t listen to it very much because the battery would run down and they were pretty expensive. We did listen to the Grand Ole Opry because they had lots of music and some funny comedians who would cut the fool and make us laugh. Some I remember were ‘Lonzo and Oscar,’ or ‘Jam-up and Honey,’ or ‘Homer and Jethro.’ Some nights we’d even listen to Lum Eddards and Abner Peabody from their ‘Jot-em Down Store.’
“We ate breakfast pretty early that Friday morning and he told me to get dressed so I could go to town with him. We would be back home around dinner time. But so much happened that day it was all hard to understand. Maybe we never did.”
What follows is the tale of an uncommon day in the life of a young man. It changed many of the normal expectations that even he and others of that age have unknowingly established for themselves, and probably changed his own life forever. It is told in the soft and mild – but sometimes determined – voice of that same young man. It wouldn’t work any other way.
The Long Way Home
The war (WWII) had been over for about two years, and the Model A roadster dad had bought and fixed up was running good. He bought a used transmission that the scrap-man never found during the war, and he and Mr. Scott got it going. I guess it was the first car he ever had that worked right and he was proud of it. It was black with yellow spokes.
Dad had sold some watermelons the day before at the market in Douglas, about twenty-five miles away. We circled through there to pick up the check at the bank, and back through Ambrose because we always bought groceries at Mr. Taylor’s store. Ambrose was only four miles from our house.
On the way to Douglas, I saw houses, farms, ponds and many other things I hadn’t seen before. We rode some of the backroads and shortcuts instead of the hard road. He already knew that we would soon be moving again, and I guess he just wanted to look at some of the other sights. And maybe share them with me, too. He was showing me all the orchards, and talked a lot about how good all the crops looked. I was noticing how clean and different and good-smelling the air was. All kinds of wild flowers and honeysuckles were growing by the road; and even big patches of them were blooming in the woods. They were pretty, too, with all the different colors.
We had made the trip to Ambrose lots of times because it was so close. Even twice with a mule and wagon, and I knew most of the landmarks. The road wasn’t very wide and had deep sand ruts. Sometimes it got washed out after a big rain, and one driver might have to move to one side to let the other one pass. They would smile or nod and it was like saying “thank you’ or “you’re welcome.”
When we got there and bought a few things, Mr. Taylor helped tote the bags to the car, and stacked them in the rumble seat section. The 50-pound block of ice was put there, too, after being wrapped in old guano sacks and set in the metal tub. We didn’t have any electricity yet. The REA was setting poles and even had strung wires to some of the houses, several miles away. Soon, we could have our own lights and “frigid-airs.” That’s what everybody started calling refrigerators back then.
I stood around with nothing to do while they talked about how things were changing. The hitching rail by the store had been shortened because there were fewer mules and more trucks; even a few tractors were starting to show up. And one of the two water troughs the mules drank from had been taken away. Dad gave me a quarter for the work I had done, and I spent all of it. I bought a Co-Cola, some candy and a bag of Tom’s peanuts. He told me to save the candy until after supper and that we would be home before long. I would always pour the peanuts into the drink to watch it fizz up; then swig from it, peanuts and all. I liked the salty taste it gave the Coke. Momma had seen me doing it, and said that it showed bad manners. But she didn’t tell me to stop it.
On the way home dad went ahead told me that this would be our last year on the farm. After the rest of the crops had been gathered – corn, cotton and peanuts – we would move to town and he would start work as a mechanic. In the Army at Fort Benning for six years, his regular job was working around the stables as a muleskinner. But when he wasn’t very busy doing that, they let him learn how to fix trucks and other things that had motors. He had even worked on the Captain’s official sedan.
When we got back to the crossroad between home and town, we could tell that something bad had happened. Earlier, we had been the only ones passing by. Now there were several cars, trucks and wagons parked along the road, and small groups of men standing in the middle. One of the black cars had “SHERIFF” painted on the door.
I knew a few of the men in the road. Some were sharecroppers like us, and sometimes swapped work at our place. Others were farmers who owned or rented their own places. I had never seen some of them. Dad drove as near as he could, then parked, and told me to stay put so he could find out what was going on.
It started to get really warm inside the cab while he walked around, talking to each bunch. I kept watching and listening but couldn’t hear much of what they were saying; but I saw the worry on their faces when they were pointing and waving their arms, talking about, I guessed, what had happened. And his own face was really serious when he walked back to me. “There’s been something bad happened, son. A killing. I’ll find out as much as I can, then we’ll go on home.” When he noticed all the sweat on my shirt, he pointed to a big shade tree beside the road, and told me to go wait there.
On the way, I noticed another car near the sheriff’s one. It was grey, with a state emblem on the door, and “Georgia State Patrol” painted below it. The trooper was wearing a uniform and hat like in the pictures of dad when he was in the Army. The pants were really baggy at the hips, but got skinnier at the bottom, where they were tucked into his boots. I’d heard them called “riding britches.” But dad said they were “jodhpurs,” and told me how to spell it.
The man in the Sheriff’s car had a deputy badge on. He was holding a shovel and a big brown grocery sack. I saw dad looking my way once or twice, but he didn’t say anything nor motion me away. So I walked a little closer.
The deputy walked to the edge of the road, near the ditch, and handed the sack to the trooper. The trooper knelt down and held it open with its side on the ground. Then the deputy moved the square shovel through the sand and underneath the flat, pinkish-gray blob that lay drying in the sun. I hadn’t even noticed it, and was glad I hadn’t stepped on it. He lifted the shovel and tilted everything into the sack, sand and all. Twice more and it was all gone.
He stood there for a little while, with the shovel blade in the sand and the handle straight up – just holding it with both hands and staring at the spot where that last bit had been laying since it happened. Then he looked at the trooper and shook his head from side to side, like he was sad. Or maybe just tired.
Then after dragging the shovel over the spot two or three times so you couldn’t tell what had been there, he stood it against the Patrol car and took the sack from the trooper. Then he folded the top over twice, walked to his Sheriff’s car and set it in the trunk. I already knew what it was. I had seen it before, at hog-killing time. Sometimes, one of the men doing the butchering would hit the hog in the head with an axe so hard that everything inside would run out.
Dad had said there’d been a killing, and now I knew it for sure. But it’s different when it’s a human being. A real person.
The deputy walked back to the trooper to get his shovel. So far, I hadn’t heard either one say a word. The trooper wiped his face and the inside of his hat brim with a handkerchief and started smoking a cigarette. “When did you hear about it?”
“About an hour ago,” answered he deputy. “I was on my way back to town when I got a call on the radio. Somebody – a Mr. Mullis – had stopped by the Crawford place and called our office. That’s one of the few houses with a telephone. Said there’d been a shooting and he was giving somebody named Moore a ride to the office. He’s the one that did the shooting. But the Sheriff told him to wait there. He sent me here to the crossroad, and another deputy to the Crawford house to pick him up. I’ve talked some to Mr. Mullis already. He’ll have to go the office tomorrow morning and make a full statement about anything he knows about, or saw. But after the Coroner’s inquest, if they have that first.”
“What’s the boy’s name? Who’s his family?”
“The boy’s name is Jimmy Dixon, and his dad is Jack. They own some land over near the river, by the county line.” The trooper was writing everything down in a Blue Horse notebook.
“And it was Mr. Mullis that first called?”
“Yep. He said that the other ones involved were on the way to the hospital with the young boy. Well, young man, really. And he thought that he—the young man – was already dead.”
The trooper spoke again: “We don’t usually get involved in things like this unless they’re trying to chase somebody down or looking for where they might be hiding. They sent me because it happened on a public road. I guess this Mullis fellow is the only neutral witness, so if he can show me about where the car and the wagon were parked, I’ll draw a diagram and be on my way. I can get everything else I need from the paperwork at your office and from the coroner’s report. Unless you need me to do something else?”
They were still talking when dad called to me and I followed him to the car. On the way home, he told me what he’d found out. I already knew some of it from listening to the officers. He skipped around some, recalling who said what. He said that lots of them were talking about it but that Mr. Mullis was the only one who really knew anything because he had seen and heard some of what happened.
He had run over a big snake and was raking him from the road when he heard some loud talking and hollering from whoever it was, up at the crossroad. And he heard a bang, then a bigger bang, and thought the last one was from a shotgun.
He ran on to the crossroad and saw Mr. Moore, with a shotgun laying in the wagon seat, and two young girls and a young man leaning over another man, lying in the sand. There was a black pistol a few feet away. He ran past the wagon and up to the girls and young man. All of them looked like teenagers, and maybe even familiar. He couldn’t see the man on the ground very good, for everybody else trying to help him. One of the girls was really scared and was still praying out loud. And all of them were crying. One was yelling to take him to the hospital.
They started pulling and lifting, trying to get him into the back seat. Not really knowing what to do, Mr. Mullis tried to help by lifting him by his legs. And he noticed the blood on the young man’s shirt. Then he said that Lordy me! Part of his forehead was gone. And he saw there wasn’t much blood. Not as much as you’d think. And he thought he was already dead, but didn’t say anything about it. They got him into the back seat and took off toward Douglas, with the dust flying.
Mr. Mullis went back to the wagon and asked Mr. Moore what happened. He had known him ever since he had started farming up by the old Carter place, about three years ago. “I shot him, Mr. Mullis. Lord knows I didn’t want to. But I had to.”
“He jumped out of his car with a pistol and shot it in the ground. And he aimed it at me and said he was gonna kill me and my both of my G.D. mules. I asked him, “What did I do – what did I do?” My wagon was stuck in the sand and the mules was having trouble moving it. That’s what started it, I guess. I was blocking the road and he got mad about it. I couldn’t help it. I knew he was serious ‘cause he was pointing and waving that pistol and cussing real bad.
“Then his hand got to shaking worse and worse and he kept on aiming that pistol right at my face. I knew he was about to do it. I ducked down and pointed my shotgun towards him and pulled the trigger before he did. That’s the only thing I could do to make him not shoot me. And I think it’s killed him. I saw what it did to his head. Now I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
Mr. Mullis said that he had already guessed about some of what happened, but to hear Mr. Moore say it made him feel all knotted up inside; but that he was trying to stay calm, for everybody’s sake. He thought that the boy might be Jack Dixon’s son, but wasn’t too sure yet. And he wondered how Mr. Dixon might take it, but didn’t mention that to Mr. Moore.
He told Mr. Moore to go to the Sheriff’s office as quick as he could, and tell them everything. And that he would tell them what he saw and heard, too. Then he helped him get his wagon out of the road, and carried him to the Crawford house. They used their telephone to call the Sheriff, and told Mr. Crawford about it. He offered to carry Mr. Moore into town, but the Sheriff told him to wait there and a deputy would pick him up.
We finally pulled off the road and into the driveway. Dad sat there a few minutes, thinking, I guess, about everything that had happened. I had stayed quiet—never saying anything the whole time he was talking. I noticed that he had talked to me like he did to other men. Even to my uncles, when they would come by. It made me feel uneasy and maybe even a little scared I guess, knowing what happened and all. But I was still glad that he did. I thought I felt sort of the way a real grown-up might feel.
We took the groceries and ice inside and he started telling momma about it. I could tell that she was really upset, and knew it would take a long time to tell her. I walked out to the toilet, then washed my hands and poured a glass of tea from the icebox, and chipped some ice off the new block. They were still talking, so I got a piece of fried ham and a biscuit from the screened cabinet. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I took that first bite. It had been a long day.
I never did tell them about the paper sack or anything that the officers talked about. There was no reason not to. I just never did.
Later, I would hear him talking more about it to my mother and to other people. About how bitter the boy’s family and some of their neighbors had felt about it. Some even said that the boy was just showing off in front of his girlfriend and the others, and wouldn’t really have shot Mr. Moore.
The hearings and trial took a long time. We moved before it got settled, and lost count of it. But some of the neighbors that mother and dad kept in touch with told them that he was cleared. The others with the young man who got killed told about everything that happened, and it was the same thing that Mr. Moore and Mr. Mullis had said. But nobody ever knew why he did what he did. They said maybe he just got mad about something else before then, and it all came to a head at the crossroad. They said that the court decided that Mr. Moore had grounds to do what he did and that he didn’t really have any choice, considering.
After that Mr. Moore moved around some in the community and lived everything down. And dad said that it was a good thing, too. He told about how Mr. Moore had come up hard, going to school as much as he could, and working his butt off in the fields like everybody else who share-cropped around there, until he could save up and finally get his own place. That he made good credit with the bank, and the seed and fertilizer people. And that he was one of the first blacks in them parts to start farming full time, on his own.