Disclaimer: In trying to portray the past, I find myself in a tug of war between trying to depict it accurately and hoping not to offend anyone. I’ve decided to aim for intellectual honesty, meaning I won’t try to sanitize but I won’t dwell on painful things. I won’t glamorize it or defend it, but I won’t pretend it wasn’t there. Whatever this work is, it is not a defense of bigotry in any of it forms. That said, let me add that if certain words and/or attitudes, which were common in the past, are offensive to you, maybe you shouldn’t read any more.
AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
A novel by Chris SherrillCopyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
Name’s William Nathan McCaskill. People who know me call me Billy. Seventy plus years have whittled that group down to just about nobody, nobody worth a shit, anyhow. I spend my days now pushing my wheelchair from sunny spot to sunny spot in this hole they call a retirement center. I didn’t come here to retire. I came here to die.
I was born on the third of September, 1936, in the rural upstate of South Carolina, the fourth of five children. There was Jacob, Jr., Charlotte, Gwen, me and Bruce. Times were hard in 1936. The Great Depression brought on by the greedy rich had taken its big bite, but the wound it left in ordinary people was far from healed. It was hard everywhere, but I think it was worse in the South where neither the economy nor society, even seventy years later, had recovered from the devastation of the Civil War. Naturally, in 1936 I knew nothing of those things. I had a pap to suck and nothing else mattered.
A boy grew up early back then on a country farm. The men did the heavy and dirty work and the women fed them, doctored them and cleaned up after them. By the time I was four I had my regular chores, mostly fetch and carry, but chores. By the time I was six I had real chores. By the time I was eight, I was milking a cow or working the reins of our plough mule. Jake, who was thirteen, worked the plough and shouted commands at me when I was too slow leading the mule, and I shouted the commands at the mule and worked the reins: Gee! Haw! Whoa! Just three commands, but it’s not as easy as it sounds for a fifty pound boy to lead a thousand pound mule.
My mom was a college graduate and drew a regular income as a teacher at the local elementary school. My dad’s farm income was less reliable or predictable. He raised food crops for the family and kept a few hogs for the family and for the market. He had eight or ten milk cows which gave us milk to drink, but most of it was sold to the local dairy, and he kept a coup full of chickens which gave us eggs and some extra to sell. I knew early on what it meant to get my hands dirty. I knew the smell of chicken shit, cow shit and mule shit, all of which I scraped off the bottoms of my shoes on a regular basis. I knew what it meant to go to bed with the sun and to rise while it was still dark to help milk cows. Nobody complained. Well, Charlotte did; she seemed to have some idea that she had been born to royalty. None of the rest of us complained. It was life; it was what we knew.
Jake was five years older than me. He was tall and slim, like daddy. He thought he was my overlord. He would thump me on the head if I didn’t do what he said right or quickly enough. I didn’t like it. We’re born with an innate urge to rise in the pecking order, so there were times I challenged his position but he always put me in my place. He was a hard worker and a good student. He seemed to drink in whatever dad told him.
Two years younger than Jake, Charlotte was a princess, at least in her mind she was. She was slim, like Jake, and pretty but not as pretty as she thought. She loved to dress up and hated to get her hands dirty. She lived in her own world, and I used to wonder if the temperature in that world wasn’t a few degrees below what it is in this one.
Gwen was fifteen months older than me. She was shorter and wider, like my mom’s people. She did poorly in school until someone realized she had vision problems. With glasses, the girl whizzed through every class. In terms of raw, innate intellectual ability, she had the rest of us beaten hands down. You could see intelligence in her eyes. Quiet and introspective, she was also the most empathetic.
Then there was me. I was boxy, like my mama’s daddy, kind of wide-bodied but not fat. Hell, wasn’t nobody fat in those days; we worked too hard. I didn’t like school and my grades showed it. I know that mama, the teacher, was often embarrassed by her son’s poor academic showing. It was just one of the things about me that embarrassed her.
Following the wisdom of the times and the traditions of their forbearers, mama and daddy produced their children quickly. I think they intended to stop with me, but four years later Bruce surprised everyone. One of my earliest memories is of the resentment of losing my mother’s attention to Bruce. It wasn’t his fault, and I’m ashamed of that now, but resentment at being shoved aside lingered toward Bruce for a number of years.
Bruce was a perpetual child. In those days children like Bruce were called Mongoloids. I don’t think people knew it was an unkind name and didn’t mean it to be unkind; most people had just never heard of Down’s Syndrome. Gwen, barely six when he was born, became Bruce’s nurse and nanny, and his champion. Somehow they seemed to understand each other, which was strange to me because she was so very quick and he so very slow.
During the school year we walked with mom the mile to school, except Bruce. Bruce never went a day to school; a kind, elderly black lady came to the house and kept him during the day. After a few years, mom and dad stopped taking him to church; he just couldn’t stay still. During Sunday School or Church, he would wander around and that interrupted other people, so they stopped taking him to church. Bruce was a sweet boy and not much trouble. He knew how to do basic things, like go to the bathroom and wipe himself. In fact he was diligent about being clean. I’m sure dad had the bathroom installed for Bruce so he could go by himself and nobody had to worry about him falling in. He enclosed a portion of the back porch, had water lines and septic field installed and put in a tub, commode and sink. You still had to go out onto the porch to get to the bathroom, so it was cold in the winter, but it was a hell of a lot better than running thirty yards across a frozen yard in the dead of night to get to the outhouse. We thought we were in high cotton, having indoor plumbing. Anyway, Bruce was just slow, mentally. He embarrassed me. He often hung around me, following me and wanting to go places with me. But he embarrassed me. Gwen was the only one of us kids that wasn’t embarrassed by Bruce.
The rest of us walked that mile to school carrying our lunches, often a baked sweet potato. There was no school lunch back then. At noon we went outside if the weather was clear, found a spot on the ground and ate. Some kids brought nothing more than a biscuit or a square of cornbread. Some kids brought nothing. It struck me as curious that some kids had nothing to eat but when I asked about it, and I was always one to ask questions, I was told to mind my own business. It grew into an argument with one boy, Jack Thompson, and when he took a swing at me it was on. I got into a lot of fights in school, so he and I went at it until a teacher, my mama, pulled us apart. That lunch business was my first glimpse of poverty. It would take a good many more years before I began to understand the crushing power and enduring legacy of poverty.
After school we fed the animals, milked the cows again, gathered eggs, cleaned the barn or outbuildings or split and carried firewood.
Our life revolved around home, but within that orbit was church. Twice on Sunday and on Wednesday evenings we went to church at the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church. My family was as much a part of that church as the bricks in the walls.
In the 1730s the entire membership of a small Scottish Presbyterian congregation, including two McCaskill brothers, Isaac and Jeremiah, determined to escape what they felt was religious oppression and voted to move to the New World. Nearly the entire congregation sold their lands and animals, packed their meager possessions and divorced themselves from their homeland. They landed in Philadelphia and migrated south, stopping here and building a house of worship which they called Ebenezer. Jeremiah McCaskill later moved to Tennessee with his family, but Isaac, my direct forbearer, stayed, and we were still here.
Mama’s parents, Thomas and Julene Gordon, lived in the southwestern part of the county, fifteen miles from us, but dad’s parents, William and Evelyn McCaskill, lived on the original family farm four miles north of us. Dad’s sister and two brothers and their families lived within a half a mile of them. All of this extended family still attended Ebenezer Presbyterian and made up about twenty percent of the membership. Ebenezer was our church.
The pastor of Ebenezer for the first fifteen years of my life was Rev. James Stockton, and he’d been there twelve years when I was born. He’s buried in the Ebenezer cemetery. I think there was a different view of ministry in those days when a man was called to minister to a group of people and didn’t see a congregation as a rung on the ladder of upward ecclesiastical mobility. I don’t know if it was better or worse, but it was different.
Rev. Stockton was a hellfire preacher. He preached a lot about sin and damnation. He used the words ‘grace’ and ‘forgiveness’ but his sermons generally led his listeners along the narrow path where the greedy fires of hell licked up on both sides and one slip could plunge one into the eternal conflagration. That was one of his favorite terms: the eternal conflagration. I came to see God as a narrow, angry and demanding being who could scarcely be pleased with sinful people like me. Odd as it may sound, out of the pulpit Rev. Stockton was generous and sympathetic and always there when a need arose within his flock.
When I was five, the nation went to war. I remember listening to the radio as President Roosevelt addressed an angry nation. It was the first time I ever heard my daddy curse when he said, “damned Japs”. Mama said, “Jacob McCaskill!” but not with any real force, which I took to mean that she felt the same.
I remember that there was a period of high tension after the attack on Pearl Harbor; people weren’t sure that the Japanese Fleet wasn’t steaming for San Francisco, but after a time life regained a sense of normalcy. I continued to hear the radio reports, my parents’ discussions and the expert political and military commentary of the men at the local general store, but life, for me, didn’t change. We put in a garden in the spring which we worked and harvested over the summer. We slopped the hogs, fed the chickens and milked the cows twice a day. In the fall we went back to school, harvested and canned the last of the produce and butchered a couple of pigs. Every Sunday and Wednesday we went to church. It was our life.
I cheered with the masses on VE Day. I cheered with them again on VJ Day. The war was won. The United States, dragged into a horrible war by evil empires, had defeated the minions of Satan and made the world safe once again.
No one could know at the time that the end of the war heralded the beginning of a social and economic renaissance the likes of which were unparalleled in history.
Our lives and chores continued as before. When the chores were done, dad sometimes took Jake and me fishing at the lake that adjoined our farm; it was an enjoyable way to put food on the table. Christianson’s lake was quite large, forty acres or so. Our farm fronted about two hundred and fifty feet along the shore. Most of the rest of the land around the lake belonged to Gordon Christianson, and we weren’t restricted from his land, but we generally stayed on our land. On the other side, directly across from our farm, was a thirty acre tract owned by an ornery cuss named Cyrus McGilroy. His land met ours along the main creek that fed the lake.
My first encounter with him was when I was playing along the edge of that creek. I guess I was seven or so. I was lost in my own little world of floating stick-boats and such when I sensed something. I looked up to see a man in black standing like a specter on the other side of the creek. He didn’t say anything, just stood there, cane in one hand, staring down at me. He was tall and gaunt, his face and hands weathered, eyes deep-set, mouth down-turned.
“Young boy like you don’t need to be playing down here alone,” he said.
His voice was deep and threatening. I jumped up and ran home. From that day, I was afraid of old Cyrus McGilroy.
A black woman and her daughter lived in the tenant house on the back of his property. It sat only about one hundred feet from the lake, and sometimes there were sounds of shouting and crying from that little house, sounds that carried easily across the lake.
We were fishing late one afternoon about dusky dark when we heard a commotion from the tenant house. I was about nine at the time.
“Come on, boys,” daddy said. “Let’s head on up to the house.”
“What’re they doing, daddy?” I asked.
“It sounds like they’re fighting about something, son. Let’s go.”
“Sounds like she’s hurt, daddy,” I said.
Dad’s eyes pinched a little but he didn’t reply.
“Why is Mr. McGilroy hurting that nigger lady?” I asked.
Dad turned toward me, the way he did when he wanted my full attention.
“I know you hear that word most everywhere, but I don’t want you to use it.”
“Everybody says it.”
“I know everybody says it, but I don’t want my children to. It’s an insult word. It’s got no meaning except to slap somebody down and that ain’t right, no matter who they are, and I won’t have my children using it.”
“Niggers ain’t real people like us, are they?” I asked. “One boy at school said…”
He held his hand up like a stop sign and glowered at me.
“I don’t want to know what the boy said, and I told you not to use that word. Colored people are human beings, just like you and me. Elam Simpkins that helps me put up hay, you see him working and singing, you see him sweating and eating and drinking water in the heat of the day. He’s a human being. His skin is black, but that’s the only real difference.”
Honestly, that came as a shock to me.
We gathered up our things. Dad had his fishing pole and the stringer of fish in his hands when a sudden loud slap and painful crying pulled our attention back across the lake. I looked from the little house to my dad and back. Something wrong was going on and I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t doing something about it. He had an angry look in his eyes and his jaw kept clenching and unclenching.
“Come on, boys,” he said. “It ain’t none of our business.”
I didn’t say anything during or after supper, but I always have questions. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. He was checking on me at bedtime.
“Boys ain’t supposed to hit girls, are they, daddy?”
“That’s right, son. You didn’t hit one of your sisters, did you?”
“No, Sir. I was wondering why Mr. McGilroy was hitting that ni… colored lady.”
He sighed deeply. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know.”
“You think she did something to make him hit her?”
He cupped my jaw with his farmer’s hand and rubbed my cheek with his rough thumb.
“A man shouldn’t never hit a woman, Billy, no matter what. Men are bigger than women, stronger, and The Good Book says that the strong are supposed to help the weak and protect the weak. You remember that, son, and you’ll grow up to be a good man.”