Travis and the year we were twelve
After their shift at the mill, the mill hill men hung out at the ESSO filling station on dual lane highway 29 drinking Coca Cola and counting the Yankee cars.
“If there is anything I hate,” said the mill worker, “its nigras, trailer park trash, union members and queers. None of them belong in my church. The colored people and trailer park trash have their own churches. I know the Lord don’t like it one bit if one of those communist union members or queers sat in our pews. I just know it in my bones.”
“Yep,” mill worker 2 chimed in, “look at that big Yankee car. Doncha know that those big cars flying south are just filled with Jews on their way to Miami?”
“Yep, poor black and white trash oughta stick to pickin’ cotton and taking up the garbage and Jews oughta stay in New York or Miami period.,” said millworker 3.
“Yep,” said the mill worker wiping Coca Cola off of his chin, “We have the experience. Don’t need the union with its bunch of commies in this town. They gonna blow us all to kingdom come with the atomic bomb.”
The mill workers had the best jobs in town. The equipment was never shut down. The cotton was spun, bleached and printed in the mill. Every white male, except for teachers and ministers, worked the mills or the cotton gin. Working at the PRINTWORKS was particularly valued since the pay was higher and it presumably took more expertise to put color into something than take it out.
The mill hill people lived in levels along the foothills depending on where the man of the house worked. Each level along the hillside represented groups of different sized, but almost identical, houses beginning with the large white house at the top of the hill with decreasing house size and salary down the hill. The worst level was the one with shotgun houses in the gulley. Like everything else that was not in a sloping run off area, the houses were rusty orange/red up to the windows from the red clay dirt that blew around or washed up when the gulley flooded. They were five little houses with sloping porches and glass Coke bottles forming the borders for the pathways between the houses. The middle house had a tractor tire in the common yard that once held flowers someone had believed would spiff this place up. Now a profusion of weeds grew higher and higher in the tractor tire and there would be forever a single purple iris pushing up and reaching for the spring sky in false hope– the dreams here were dead and they would live forever in the ugly mud red-white shotgun houses with many skinny children and skinny dogs.
“It wasn’t always this way,” said Travis, our neighbor who preached to me and Sally from under his 1936 military doo doo brown Pontiac that never moved except when it was pushed out of the shed into the sunlight.
“Early on, the mill workers came in from the farm, worked the week and went back home to the farm and family over the weekend. Things changed when the mills made communities with cheap houses. There was no individual freedom on the mill hills like what you have on a farm. The mill hill is just one big collective uneducated brain.”
Freda Smith lived at the bottom of the geographical caste system. She had the desk in front of me at school and fucked nearly everybody. Girls were pregnant at twelve because their father or brother or mother’s boyfriend knocked them up and they had to stop school because they couldn’t fit under the desks. Freda’s father raped each of his girls when they were barely of age. The younger girls would watch in horror as the next sister in line reached the appropriate birthday and went screaming into the outhouse with their skinny father. He was throwing off his overall straps and undressing the sister as he closed and locked the outhouse door. Freda was old and knocked up before we got to the fifth grade. She later became a well-known hooker. At least she finally made some money from the lesser part of fucking. She was not pretty.
“Social progress can be measured exactly by the position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included,” sort of quoted Travis.
It was the communist people in the union who were scary. Everyone knew that the state troopers with boots up to their genitals would come in if the union guys made a ruckus at the mill, and we were afraid of both. Really, the southern union people did not like anyone less than white or anyone that would take a job from their current membership, but they had to pretend that all were welcome since that is superficially what unions are supposed to do.
It was the communists who knew what was going on in that small town. The whole population was being watched constantly.
“There are communists running the new supermarket,” the history teacher announced confidentially before the air raid drill, “just keep your eyes peeled and be careful. And stay under your desks until you hear the air raid gong signaling the end of the drill. Please memorize the sign over there. You will be tested.”
1. SIGNAL - FOUR GONGS REPEATED FOUR TIMES
2. . PROCEDURE - Move to shelter areas in accordance with
directions on air raid signs hanging in corridors and elsewhere
SILENCE IS MAINTAINED AT ALL TIMES
SIGNAL FOR RETURN IS A SINGLE GONG
And someone had hand written below all the signs, “Bend over grab your ankles & kiss your ass goodbye”
The white children hid under desks and Freda couldn’t make it under the desk pregnant and Florida Smith always peed when the alarm went off and pee ran to the back of the room because the room slanted and the dumb or outspoken got to sit in the back behind Florida. The little black kids in the little black school had double desks which made for pretty crowded conditions after the alarm sounded.
“One is forced to ponder what portion of their brains government officials used to come up with the idea that cheap wooden desks would protect school children from the A-bomb,” said Travis from under the doo doo brown hood, “You children would die huddled under a desks standing in pee-pee. The notion of this death scene would fall into a yet unidentified category of hell and embarrassment for any school aged child.”
Sally and I listened to the old army shoes sticking out from the front of the doodoo brown car. Sally was my childhood friend - the result of the meeting between two twelve year old people with hormones beginning to beat the shit out of each other. When we were children, Sally lived in one part of town called colored town and I lived in another part of town called town. We did not decide this; it was the way things were in Dark Corner. I thought I would lose Sally. I was sure the communists were going to bomb colored town first.
Actually we could die just for hanging out together. This would be the response from our neighbors, not the communists.
“The communists have the atom bomb and are going to blow us to kingdom come and the commie unions are coming to get us no matter what,” I said to the shoes. “The communists have already running our government and probably the FBI. This means they know everything.”
“You children should not listen to this crap,” said Travis, wiping his greasy hands on his old khakis, “We are still a democracy and democracy is for all people of this country – and it is indeed one road to socialism. We need to give all people an equal shot. And you two know what I am talking about! ”
“Good lord Travis,” Sally said, “you know its socialism that is the road to communism. I read it in the history book. ”
“History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends,” he quoted from under the car.
We knew there were drums of food and stuff all lined up in a dank corner of the furnace room at the school where we could hide during the communist takeover of the USA. The communists were going to bomb this little southern town. The survivors of the atomic bomb would eat radioactive crackers and drink polluted water in the furnace room and sit and watch each other die of radioactive poisoning.
“There are only two or three blankets and a cot down there in the furnace room and we have a population of 800 white people,” observed Travis. “This assumes, and is expected, that no black people are allowed in the furnace room. Of course, the cot and blankets have long been taken over by a black janitor for naps, assuring that no white person will ever snore there anyway.”
Travis McCoy was my father’s unexpected next door neighbor friend. Travis had a massive shock of auburn hair and bright blue eyes and a bright chubby face. His brick red mustache came out of his face in a wild bushy outgrowth. Travis knew about me and Sally. At least he knew we were up to something. He lurked and watched constantly; he had seen us, he was pretty sure he knew what we were up to, but he never said anything
The local gossip was that Travis went a little nuts after the war. Perhaps he was hatching some sinister plan to kill us while we were hiding in the dark in our old barn trying to figure out how to touch each other. We never really knew what Travis had done in the war other than go a bonkers and come back to the house where he was born and work swing shifts at the mill. My father said he drove a tank in the war and drank his way through at least three European countries.
My father, Big B, and Travis would talk every afternoon after they were home from work. My father was the school principal who was writing a critique of the south in his latest thesis, but we didn’t know this. They would stand in the driveway and talk about stuff – the south, the weather, the war, the mill. Most of the conversation was series of grunts our Scottish ancestors used to make around the fireplace. This could go on for hours.
“How’s the mill?” My father would inquire every freaking day.
“Urrgh and umm,” Travis would respond.
“Umm,” said Big B.
“Yep, arrgh.”’ answered Travis.
My father bought chickens so our yard would look like the rest of the freaking neighbors.
"This is not a fucking farm,” my DAR mother with the immense vocabulary would scream, “get those ugly birds off the property.”
Travis would grab the chickens that wandered into his backyard and break their necks by spinning them around by the head. His alternative was to chop off their heads with an axe and let them run around the back yard with no head until they just keeled over in their own chicken shit. He would then naively present the feathered chicken to my mother, who was already disgusted with the entire neighborhood.
“Chickens are the main reason people become vegetarians,” she would scream.
Travis scheduled each day. He shuffled home after work at the mill – down the dirt driveway at exactly 3:30 pm and on to the big white shed, wiping his hands on his war khakis to grasp the shed door. He had to check his car. Then on to one of the outhouses; they had two. They stood side by side proudly in the backyard near the house.
There was always the horror of an invitation to eat rhubarb pie with dirty old Mrs. McCoy. None of us had any idea what a rhubarb was, but the pie was not clean. She was not someone who washed her hands. Only the white among us was invited for pie. The darker among us could have pie outside on the steps. The darker of us did not like rhubarb one bit better that the whiter of us so we had a rhubarb pie pile in the back of the barn. The mice didn’t eat it either.
“We have to eat the pie; we have to eat the rhubarb pie” sang Sally, a black person who should not sing.
Travis emptied old Mrs. McCoy’s slop jar and took care of her in general. He took care of the old man, but the old man died. He died in the upstairs bedroom of the house - the dusty white house with the bushes up to the second floor window. He died there in a dark room under the old dirty print quilt his mother made. He died with the wind blowing the bushes against the window. The angels of god were also flapping the bushes against the window to announce their arrival in this strange place. We saw him there, having tiptoed to peek at a dead body.
“Why have we been quiet for days?” screamed my little sister Suzy, “The old man couldn’t hear crap”.
Then the brother died. The tall skinny bent- over TB-ridden Baptist hypochondriac named John died. Old Mrs. McCoy told us as a matter of fact that he had married the town slut and that she had been married before to the town drunk. This and other information was delivered over rhubarb pie. My little sister, baby Suzy, who had inherited her ever running mouth from our mother, was thrilled to learn new words and none of them was rhubarb.
Travis took care of them and he watched and watched over us - still sitting in the barn loft just looking at each other. Travis watched us as if he had to as a loyal person to whatever he was into… and he took care of his light doo-doo brown Pontiac. He also read dirty books and magazines in his room. I know, because he once showed us his dark bedroom.
“We figure he is a socialist or something by the other books we saw there,” I said to my father.
“Say something like that again,” my father said to us gently, “or if you even think it again, neither of you will be able to sit for years.”
Travis was brought home from the mill one day, his big bloody body lying in the bed of an old truck. He had been beaten senseless by a mob screaming, “communist and queer” over and over again. My father placed ice on his face which seemed to be swollen beyond help. Sally and I watched his feet hanging off the back of the truck as if they were going somewhere without his body. The protector of our innocence had had the shit beat out of him. Once he was better, he went back to work and came home each afternoon at exactly 3:30 pm. He never really talked to anyone again. This was the day we learned everything. We lived and grew up in Dark Corner.
And the Chakuga River continued to run the print works mill color of the day. And we sang the high school of the white people’s anthem, “Far above Chakuga’s waters, with its waves of blue (green, red, whatever).”
When Travis puffed his cheeks the wind would blow down the hills of corn and way beyond to our kites and to the blue mountains and cause the barn doors to slam all over Dark Corner where the sun hardly shines.
This was the year we were twelve. I would sit on the hillside next to the road watching Freda make a cheap score on the front porch swing of the little red mud stained white house and watching Travis’s khaki butt sticking out the front hood of the doo-doo brown car and watching the clothes line swing on the wind. Just holding my warm basketball and looking over to the mountains. The mill is gone now.