Chapter 1: The Color Of Compassion
Copyright© 2011 by TC Allen
Saturdays were "going to town days" for us. Some families could not afford to go into town every week because times were hard and money was scarce. They couldn't take time off nor afford the expense of the extra fuel for travel. Still it was necessary to make the trip at least once a month if only to obtain the "necessaries" and to see fresh human faces. Our farm was a little over fifteen miles from town near the North Canadian River so Pa and Ma went in three or four times a month. Pa was a great one for planning things out in advance so we could nearly always take off on a Saturday and spend most of the day shopping and visiting with friends and neighbors.
One Saturday when I was about twelve years old, I saw a colored boy get knocked down and beaten by two white boys. They taunted him and called him "dirty Nigger" and other names equally degrading. He was close to my own age, but much smaller of build. "I ain't done nuffin to you, why you do dis? No mo! No mo! Please, no mo!"
Several adults saw what was happening and either grinned or looked away. I noticed how the ones who turned away acted kind of ashamed, yet they did nothing to stop it the torment. The ones who watched looked as if they thought it was great sport to hurt a black boy. That puzzled me. I wondered why anyone would delight in hurting others.
I was aware of the racial prejudice went on in Oklahoma back then, but it never really affected me because there were very few non-white people in the whole county. Of course no blacks went to our school and only two Indian kids attended. One boy, Lester Yellow Eyes was in my class and stayed pretty much to himself. The other was his sister Linda who was two grades behind us. Nothing prepared me for what I saw Saturday
Right now I wish I could say I jumped in, knocked the two white bullies to the ground and saved that colored boy from getting a further beating. But I didn't. I watched and knew what they were doing was very wrong, but I was afraid to act because I was not too certain what I should do.
I knew it was wrong to beat up on any living creature. Even dogs and horses had feelings and Pa always taught me to be kind to animals. Also I knew that colored boy was more than just an animal because I saw how my Pa treated the couple we did encounter. He was always very polite and treated them just like he did everybody else.
I stood there in a debate with myself about whether I should come to the aid of this boy close to my own age. In part I was fearful to act and do the wrong thing. I wasn't afraid of either of the two bullies. They had both picked on me at school and picked themselves up off the ground as a result. But I was worried about what other people would think if they saw me come to the aid of boy. I was afraid of being branded a Nigger lover. That was my problem in a nutshell. I was afraid of what people would think.
Instead of intervening I turned away and went back to where Pa was waiting outside the blacksmith shop for a set of heavy hinges to put on the granary door. The old ones were pretty much rusted out. I stood by him and thought about what I had just witnessed. It bothered me more than I realized. I believe I was also ashamed of myself because I did not come to the colored boy's aid.
"What's the matter, Son?" Pa asked me. He seemed to sense my inner turmoil.
"Pa," I began and stopped for a moment to collect my thoughts. "Pa, do Niggers go to heaven?" I blurted out the question and waited for an answer. Inside me, I somehow knew this very important question went far beyond asking why water boils or how high is up before it becomes down. This was a very basic question and I was afraid I had overstepped some invisible boundary in asking it. Pa looked at me in astonishment as I waited for an answer.
Then just when I thought he wasn't going to answer me, Pa said, "I want to ask you a question, do colored people talk the same language we do? I don't want you to answer me right now. You think about your question and I'll ask you again for an answer when we get home.
I tried to be very "grown up" in my thinking. I was pleased Pa was tasking me to think up an answer all by myself. He had been doing this for well over a year at the time. I felt Pa was really asking my opinion and wanted to know what I thought. "Okay, Pa, when we get home," answered him.
Virgil Watkins, a helper to the Blacksmith, interrupted and asked, "Aw hell. Just tell the boy outright how Niggers is two legged animals not much smarter than monkeys. Why make it all so complicated? Niggers is Niggers and people is people."
Pa looked him straight in the eye. "Virgil, I don't need any help in explaining things to my son, thank you."
Virgil was a big, large bellied man with a big mouth that continually got him in trouble, especially when he was drunk on bootleg corn whiskey. His son, Cletus, had been one of the two bullies beating up on the colored boy.
Virgil shut up, though. He didn't shut up because my Pa had a reputation as a brawler, but Pa had an air about him that demanded respect. People were naturally polite to him. Like with Virgil, even he recognized Pa was a man not to rile. Pa was living proof of the old saying, "Still waters run deep." He spoke when he had something he felt was worth saying and shut up the rest of the time and listened to what others had to say.
Our old Model T Ford truck was too noisy for much talking on the way home, so I waited and tried to "think grown up thoughts." Ma sat quiet as she always did when we were out for a drive. She seemed content to look out at the fields and prairie dog villages and just enjoy the pleasure of the moment.
However the instant I was out of the truck, carrying an armload of the foodstuffs we bought in town, I said, "Pa, as soon as the truck is unloaded, I sure want to ask you again. I think this is real important."
"What is it you wish to ask your father, Davy?" Ma asked.
"It's about Niggers, Ma."
She sighed and said, "Perhaps we should all three talk." Nothing else was said until Pa brought the hundred pound bag of flour, the last item, off the truck and into the house.
Ma opened the firebox on the old Monarch Range and started a blaze going. Then she put the battered black porcelain covered tin coffee pot on the stove to warm up the morning's left over coffee. She sat at the kitchen table and motioned for me to sit, also.
Pa took his place at the head of the table and, as he sat down, asked me, "Well, Davy what's your answer?"
"Pa, what you asked me just don't make sense."
"What doesn't make sense, son?" Ma asked.
"Pa asked me if Niggers talked the same language as us." I became impatient with such an obvious question.
"Tell me why it don't make sense, Son." He placed his elbows on the table and leaned forward. "Think before you answer."
"Pa, of course they talk the same as you and me. I heard them."
"Well, then how about monkeys? Do they talk people talk?" Pa was thinking back to what loud mouth Virgil Watkins said about colored people being barely smarter than monkeys.
"Of course not. Pa, you know monkeys can't talk; they just make noises."
I thought a moment and said, "But parrots can talk."
Ma smiled and asked, "Davy, can you hold a conversation with a parrot?"
"No, Ma, of course not because they're animals."
"Well then," she asked, "Can you hold a conversation with a colored person?"
"Yes, I heard Pa talk to Jimbo White at the lumber yard while he was loading lumber on the truck. But what does it have to do with Niggers going to heaven?"
"Davy, the reason I and your father are letting you work this out for yourself is because you have asked a very important question. We hope you are old enough to work your way through it and come up with a good answer." Ma was still smiling gently as she waited, but there was a troubled look about her face.
"Well, they never come to church, so I guess they don't go to heaven," I nodded at the logic of my reasoning.
"Davy, You remember the time we drove to Shattuck to visit Grandpa in the hospital?"
"Yes, Pa, I remember," I answered him. It had been a long, dusty drive. It was also the last time I saw Grandpa Hansen alive.
"Remember the white church on the edge of town where all those colored folks were outside on the lawn having a pot luck picnic?" He waited.
"Uh, well, I guess I do." I wanted to wiggle out of where this was going. "But none of them go to our church."
"Why?" Ma asked. "Why don't they go to our church, Davy?"
I thought a moment, then answered, "Because nobody will let them, isn't it?" I began to see where they were going with their questions. "Its because nobody will let them in." I took a deep breath.
"Pa, thinking grownup thoughts is hard work." I complained to him.
"Which is why too few grownups do it. It's just too much hard work and bother for so many people." Ma's voice had a tart sound to it. For some reason she had gotten all worked up over this.
I thought about what had been discussed. I frowned and thought some more. "Does this mean they go to heaven, too?"
"Yes, Son, as much as anybody else." Pa laughed and said, "Either all people will get a shot at goin' to heaven, or none of us will."
Suddenly it hit me, "I shouldn't say 'Nigger' any more, should I?"
"No you shouldn't. Where did you pick up using such a horrible word, anyway?" Ma looked at me curiously and waited.
"From my teacher at school, Mister Clark."
"Well, there's your second lesson for the day," Pa said. I looked at him and he continued, "Remember, just because a teacher says it doesn't really make it so. You have to learn to do your own thinking and not rely on somebody else to do it for you."
I went outside and began my chores, the egg gathering first. I was also deep in thought. This time I did not try to "think grownup thoughts," but rather attempted to reason something through on my own because I felt the need to. This was what Pa and Ma were did their best in the first place. Ma was right; it is hard work to think.
I decided right then if I ever saw them pound on a colored boy again, I would have to interfere and try to stop it. Not because it was the brave thing to do, but rather it would be the right thing to do, a matter of conscience. I was proud of myself for making this decision on my own. Suddenly I felt better about myself.
We went to town the following Saturday. Sometimes it seemed we went when we didn't really need anything. Pa would head over to Backus Drug Store and sit and sip a Coke. (In those days we called them "dopes" because at one time there were small amounts of cocaine put in them.
Years earlier, about 1903, it became illegal so the bottlers switched to "safer" caffeine. But the nickname "dope" lingered on. Pa always ordered a "dime dope" for himself and a nickel one for me, about half the size of his. We sat and watched the people go by out on the sidewalk and talk about "things." There was a fair sized magazine rack and we might "look through" a magazine or two.
Comic books were not the same as they are today. There were a couple of children's pulp publications that cost a nickel. Now, so long as you bought something at the soda fountain, you weren't necessarily expected to buy a magazine just because you were reading it. (Want to try it today?)
Ma left her "men folk" to go shopping by herself. She usually never bought a single thing. She fingered every bolt of cloth in the J C Penny's store, looked at all the latest Vogue and Mc Call's dress patterns and wandered a bit to meet and talk with friends and neighbors. Yet she would seldom ever spend a red cent. And she went home as happy as if she had bought a whole new wardrobe. I will never ever understand women.
We made another two or three such Saturday shopping trips before I saw the two bullies. They were beating up on that same colored boy again. There were four grownups standing around watching and laughing at the show.
It took me almost a full minute to get my resolve up and run over and yell at them, "Hey, you stop right now." Cletus Watkins and Elmer Davis took turns kicking him while he was down on the ground.
Cletus looked at me and sneered, "You want some of what we're givin' this Nigger?" He figured the two of them could gang up on me.
Instead of answering, I walked up and shoved hard on his chest. He stumbled backwards and tripped over Elmer. The two fell in a heap. I reached down, grabbed a wrist and brought the colored boy to his feet and said, "Come on."
He got up with my help and we walked away. There was silence behind us. I have always hoped the silence was caused by feelings of shame on the part of some of the bystanders. But I doubt it.
He held back and asked, when I turned to see why he had stopped, "Why you do dis?" He looked at me suspiciously. "How come you helps me?"
"Because it was the right thing to do," I answered.
"Dat udder time you don't help me." I was surprised he was even aware I had witnessed the other beating. "Why you don't do anything den?" His right eye was swollen almost shut and his lower lip, already thick by nature was twice its normal size. He was having trouble speaking plainly and clearly.
Before I could answer, Pa came rushing up, took one look at the colored boy and asked, "David. (I was always "David" when he was upset.), Did you have anything to do with this?" He was looking at me in a stern in a way I had never experienced before. It scared me.
"Not exactly, Sir," I began.