Sweet Home Alabama
Copyright© 2013 by Robert McKay
You don't rush older rural southern people. Even if the house had been on fire Col. Donovan would have insisted on taking time to be polite before he fled the blaze, and the house wasn't on fire as we sat there on the porch. It might have been 45 minutes or even an hour, and about at the end of the second round of lemonade, before he said, "I'm sure y'all didn't come here just to pass the time with an old man."
I had my glass in my hand, and set it on the table at my elbow. "I do enjoy talkin' with you, Colonel, but you're right – we've got business on our minds."
"I surmise it's the cross burning," he said, and his voice and face were without expression.
"I know you didn't have anything to do with it," I told him. "When Daddy says that you meant what you told him, I believe him. I have no reason at all to question your sincerity. But I doubt that you dropped all your old friends when you invited a black man to sit down and talk with you as an equal."
"A right smart of them did drop me," he said. "I ran with a made up minded crowd, and my alteration didn't alter them any." He picked up his glass, but then didn't drink from it. "I've had word that I don't need to attend a number of funerals. I would have died for those people, but once I changed my thinkin' they wanted no more to do with me than they wanted to do with coloreds."
Knowing what word Donovan had used when he was younger, Cecelia and I had long ago decided not to challenge what he called her – it could have been much worse. It rankled nonetheless, with me anyway, and I had to stomp the irritation down when I spoke. "But you do still have some connections."
"Yes, sir, I do. I don't abandon my friends."
"Nor do we say that you have done so, or should do so," Cecelia said. "I utterly reject the opinions of people who view me as inferior simply because of my color, but I could never respect someone who, merely because he changed his views, sloughed off his friends."
Donovan nodded. "You understand me then."
"I do – and, within the constraints which my skin will readily bring to your mind, I even approve."
Now the colonel took a drink of lemonade and set the glass down. "If I could have caught those people who burned that cross, I would have laid hands upon them." I had to believe Donovan was exaggerating – the most exertion he'd gotten in years had been walking to and from the porch each day. "Since I learned of the incident, I've put my mind on the matter. I've wondered who might have done it. And I don't know."
"You have no ideas, then?" Cecelia asked.
"No, ma'am, I don't. I'm sorry."
Sometimes it's just knowing which question to ask. "Do you know," I said, "anyone who might know? If you could just give me a couple of names to talk to, I could do that, and see what they'd tell me, and go from there."
"That I can help you with. Out of all the people I know, one man might be able to lead you a little further along the way. Go see Hamp Carter. Tell him you've spoken with me."
I nodded. "I know Carter, to say hello to anyways." I gave the colonel a sharp glance. "I had no idea he was a Klucker."
"I don't know that he is," Donovan told me. "But I do know, for a fact, that he is no friend of the coloreds."
"And he might be friends with people who'd burn a cross?"
I leaned back in my chair. "I appreciate your help, Colonel."
"As do I," Cecelia said. "This matter touches me very closely, and any aid which you can render will – does – receive my deep gratitude."
"Miz Carpenter, I called your daddy 'boy' more than once – an' he's as good a man as I am, maybe better. I live with that every day. I owe it to him, an' to his family, an' to the colored people of this commun'ty, to help y'all with this. If I was able, I would go out and beat the bushes myself. I can't, not anymore, but I can give you what I know, an' I'm glad to do it."
"The obligation, sir," Cecelia said, "is mine. You have done me an important service, and I shan't forget it."
Donovan waved his hand. "Let's call it even, then, if you won't accept my debt."
"Fair enough, Colonel."
"As for me," I said, "I ain't got Cecelia's background, an' you don't owe me a thing. I count this as a favor you've done me. Give me a call sometime when you need something, an' I'll come a-runnin'."
"I think you'd do that anyway, Darvin," the colonel said. "We are not friends – we have not had enough to do with each other for that – but I think we respect each other."
"I certainly respect you. What you did for Daddy earned that, and my gratitude too. But leave us not get maudlin here. Colonel, we appreciate the lemonade, and the name, an' now if you don't mind, we'll go talk to Carter."
Though I knew where Hamp Carter lived, I didn't immediately drive in that direction. Instead I got us off Col. Donovan's property, found a place where the shoulder was wide enough I could pull off the road safely, and did exactly that. I kept the engine running so we could have cooler air than the outside would give us – if we'd been moving the breeze in the windows would have worked, but sitting still would have been a sweat bath without the air conditioner.
I put the gearshift in neutral and pushed the parking brake with my foot – I hate hand-operated emergency brakes and moving it had been one of the things I'd spent money on when I'd bought the Blazer. I turned to Cecelia and said, "You know the people around here better than I do, white as well as black. Tell me about Hamp Carter."
She thought for a moment, organizing her knowledge. "His full name is Hampton Terrance Carter. He claims a distant relationship with Robert E. Lee – which, as you know, also gives him a distant relationship with George Washington." I did know it – Lee married a descendant of Martha Washington. "Anywhere in the south such ancestry, even today, is equivalent to, in England, having as an ancestor Henry VIII or James I."
"You mean James VI," I said.