Chapter 1: Mr. Sunshine
“The sun is mighty powerful. It causes the wind and the rain. And it makes things grow! But… ” Mr. Sam paused here before going on and lowered his voice. “…it also makes shadows.” He drew out that last word and then he stopped for what seemed like forever.
Albert waited and wondered. Something had to be wrong with Mr. Sam. His eyes were still open, but he wasn't moving much. He thought maybe he should reach out and give him a little poke, just to make sure he was still breathing. As Albert extended his finger to do just that, Mr. Sam quickly snatched him by the wrist. That startled Albert even more than the near dead Mr. Sam. He was much quicker than he supposed an old man should be.
"The good news is that when the sun goes down for the day, he takes all those all shadows with him." Another pause. “Well… almost all of them.” He stopped again and looked around as if searching for something. Albert looked around as well, but just to be polite. He really didn't see much. Miss Lottie was still at the end of the porch doing her ironing. The sun was still shining and making the wind blow around a bit. And his dog was still chewing on his leg or scratching his ear out in the yard by the old hickory tree. He tried to do both but couldn't quite figure out how to manage it. Belvedere did that a lot, but then, he was a dog and that's what dogs did. Mr. Sam was still looking around and he still had Albert's wrist. His eyes were rolling all about, just like the marbles did in the Mason jar back home on Albert’s dresser.
Finally, Mr. Sam started moving again and pulled him in real close and whispered in his ear. "Listen to me Burty, this is important, real important. D’you understand? Sometimes… " and before he could finish a blue jay flew straight into the closed window right behind Mr. Sam's head. It hit hard, too, and almost hit him! It probably would have if he hadn't leaned in to get a little closer. Of course Albert couldn't resist and desperately wanted to see if the poor jay needed his expert help but Mr. Sam hadn't quite said his peace. "Burty!” He gave him a small but firm shake. “I said this is important!" Mr. Sam barked but all the excitement had drawn Miss Lottie’s attention and when Miss Lottie's ironing got interrupted… look out!
"Samson Lucius Browne! What kind of stories are you fillin’ that boys head with?" The jay twitched once and was still.
"Burty, come here boy.” She slapped her leg like she was calling a dog. “Don't you pay him no mind. He thinks he is heppin' with all those old tales, but they just stories that folks use to get their kids to do what needs doin’. Now you run on home.” She stared at him real hard then cocked her head to the side. “Ain't that ‘cho Momma callin’?" Albert instantly froze to listen but was certain that he hadn't heard his mother. Besides, he was quite interested in what Mr. Sam had been telling him, especially now that Miss Lottie didn't want him to hear it.
"Miss Lottie, please… I don't have to be home until dinner time!" Albert pleaded. “That must be hours from now.” He knew that when Miss Lottie made up her mind, that was that, but he still had to try. Who knew when he could get Mr. Sam back to that story again.
Mr. Sam was old. Real old. Albert's mother told him that Mr. Sam had fought in the first World War. He had heard a lot about "Old Days". His grandmother and grandfather called them the "Good Ole Days" and while much of the stories were similar, Albert liked Mr. Sam's stories better. Maybe because his stories were older and more colorful.
"Please Miss Lottie, I want to stay!" By this time Mr. Sam was just sitting there staring out into the yard again. Albert knew it was going to take some kind of coaxing to bring him back so he played the sure ace. "Mr. Sam, tell me a story about the the 'Old Days'!"
Most times when he asked him about “the way it was” Mr. Sam would perk right up, but not today. Today something had ahold of him and it was going to take a bit more craftiness on his part. “Tell me about the War, Mr. Sam!” The second ace was on the table and Albert was quite confident he’d get his story now, but still Mr. Sam sat immobile, his gazed fixed on the old tree in the front yard. He tugged at Mr. Sam’s sleeve and begged him as only a ten-year-old can do. And still nothing. “Please!” It was certainly a tricky situation that he found himself in that all too warm summer afternoon and Albert desperately wanted to hear more about the shadow. He thought if he could just get Mr. Sam talking again he could eventually get the story to come back around. But nothing had changed. He had tried not one, but two sure fired ways to bring Mr. Sam back but he was still staring at that tree and now…well, now he was almost out of ideas.
Albert plopped himself down and folded his legs up under himself – “Indian-style” was what his first grade teacher Mrs. Eaves called it. And then it came to him. He stood up and placed himself squarely between Mr. Sam and the tree. “Mr. Sam… tell me about your best friend Jim!” His third ace was on the table and he was now out of cards. Surely that one had to work. But Samson Browne just sat there—the steady moving of his chest the only proof that he was still alive.
“Mr. Sam… you promised! Please Mr. Sam! Oh pleeeeease!” And with that Albert once again took his place at Mr. Sam’s feet and waited. So it went for what seemed like an eternity to Albert. He stared at Mr. Sam and Mr. Sam stared at the old hickory. Belvedere even lent Albert a hand alternating his watchful eye between the three of them. And every so often Albert would tug lightly at the old man’s pant leg to see if anything had changed.
“Oh, I cain’t take this a minute longer! Samson, you mind me now. Young Burty here been waitin’ just as patient as you please. It hain’t right that you should sit there and not give him that story… after all you did promise him…”
She put the iron down for the second time that day and went over, placed her big, callused hands on each of his shoulders and stared directly in his eyes. She put some words in his ear that only he could hear. Then more loudly she continued, “but you best just stick to the story ‘bout Jim… you hear me Samson.”
And with that, Miss Lottie had broken the spell. In a million years Albert wouldn’t have thought that she would have been his wild card!
“Alright Burty. He gonna tell that story now.” And slowly, like an autumn stream, Mr. Sam did come back around. He licked his lips once and scratched the back of his head and slowly began.
"My Daddy was one of the few black men in Charlton County who could say that he owned his farm. It was a small farm, Burty, only 19 acres or so but we were able to provide for ourselves and still have enough left over to sell at market. Most often, everything was alright and people let us be. Then the War started. A lot of my friends saw it as an opportunity to show everyone that we was just as good as they was.” He smiled at that and continued. “But then they got the draft going… and then they’s a lot of us. Some folks didn't want black men serving alongside whites. And some saw it as a chance to get rid of some of us ‘troublesome’ black folk.’ Mr. Sam stopped talking. He often did that and Albert didn't always understand. This time though, he was pretty sure he knew. He had been told the stories about the the burnt crops and the lynchings. Miss Lottie had shushed her husband then too.
Albert took this chance to sit down and get comfortable against the wall. And then he waited. The silence didn't last long. “My Daddy made his ‘Declaration of Loyalty’ just like all the other farmers. Momma even planted herself one of them Liberty Gardens right in front of the house up by the road, but Daddy didn’t feel that was gonna be enough to keep his family safe. We could tell he was scared and that, Burty, was the first and only time I ever did see my Daddy scared of anything.” He stared hard into Albert's eyes for a long minute then he gave him a big smile with teeth that looked like corn and he continued. “Well, as I said, the War brought the draft and that meant that all the men over a certain age was needed to go fight for our country and help them folks over in Europe. You know what the funny thing is? I enlisted.”
“So why’s that funny Mr. Sam? If all men were going and it was good for the country and all…”
“Well, I enlisted because I had heard about these fellas up in New York that was actually going to fight.”
“Didn’t everyone fight that was in the war?” Albert was getting confused.
“No Burty… remember I told you that some white folks didn’t like the idea that blacks were going at all?” He stopped here and looked at Albert and waited. Normally, Mr. Sam stopped and didn’t expect anything and either kept right on talking or was pretty much finished for the day.
“All the men I fought with were part of the 369th regiment and all of them men was Black. Well all of them ‘cept for my best friend Jim and most folks wouldn’t’ve known he wasn’t a Negro. D’ya wanna hear something funny Burty? Now I know you study real hard in school so you should see the humor in this. His full name was James Laughing Crow… y’see? Jim Crow! Heh! I'm sure his Daddy had no idea! Heh heh heh… no'suh! Course Jim thought it was kind 'a funny and I guess I did too. Ain’t that a hoot Burty? Jim Crow serving real proud in an all Black regiment.
Well Jim was a Choctaw Injun. And at that time, Injuns wasn’t even allowed to be American citizens. But that didn’t stop Jim. He enlisted… how and why he made it to the New York National Guard I never did ask… never thought to. But he did so because he wanted to serve as a member of the Army's Signal Corps. Nowadays they call them ‘code talkers’. Do ya know what a code talker is Burty?” Mr. Sam just kept on talking. But Albert knew alright. He had heard all about them from his Uncle Toomey. Uncle Toomey wasn’t really his uncle. But he was a Navaho and that was just one of the many stories he had told him. Mr. Sam pressed on. “Well they’s Injuns that used their own language to bedevil the enemy. Ya’see, when Jerry tried to listen in and find out where a supply drop was gonna be made or were our soldiers was being moved, they couldn’t understand a word. It was so successful that they used them again in the War to End All Wars. That’s what they were calling the Second World War at the time. And they used Navahos mostly then.” Albert felt a sense of pride at that. “Anyway, some of the other fellas from his tribe had already been asked to help out and he wanted to do his part. So he went down to enlist and signed up. There weren’t many Choctaws left in Georgia at that time. Most of them being run off their own lands years before. Well, Burty, old Jim signed his papers and the fellas at the recruiting station didn’t know quite what to do with him. They must have figured since he was so dark, they’d put him in our regiment ‘cause they didn’t want no “Dirty Injuns” fightin’ alongside all those fine white boys. ‘Course him being from Georgia and the rest of the tribe now in Oklahoma meant that there weren’t too many of his folks signing up from our parts and that probably had something to do with it too. At first some of the fellas didn’t want him in our regiment either but they did come ‘round.”
“Now Jim was a good man and a strong man… probably the strongest man I ever did know next to my Daddy.” Mr. Sam paused here for a minute and licked his lips. “Now this is important Burty. He was strong. D’ya understand?” Albert nodded and was rewarded with a small smile before Mr. Sam continued. The atta boy kind of smile you get from your coach or your dad when he’s teaching you to ride your bike or throw a football. “No, Jim wasn’t strong just physically… Its important because of what happened to him when he come back… but the story started long before then. It started back in the trenches.”
Mr. Sam stopped again reached for his ever present iced tea. He took a long sip and let out a deep breath and cocked his head. “Ada?”
Albert had heard Mr. Sam say that name once before. And like that time Miss Lottie took notice.
“Mr. Sam, what happened to Jim? What about the trenches?” Albert tried hard to bring his friend back but he was old and Albert didn’t have the magic that Miss Lottie had.
Miss Lottie put her hand on Albert’s shoulder. “He’s slipping again Burty. Time to go. Mr. Sam needs his rest.”
End of Chapter
© 2016 Michael O’Connell. All rights reserved.