I always noticed him as I walked out of my parents house growing up. Tall, thin and moving slowly his speed never seemed to vary. He wore the same clothing every day….dark gray pants, a lighter gray work shirt with his name embroidered above the pocket, thick soled factory work boots and a straw fedora or “gentlemans” hat on his head. He never failed to smile when he saw me….we shared a bond…….
He was the “yardman” for my parents when I was a child. There was one before James, his name was Hobart and while I heard stories of him, he was gone before I was old enough to remember him, but James was the man. He mowed grass, pulled weeds, planted flowers, raked, tilled the beds right alongside my mother. These were the days before weed eaters and gas blowers. The work was by hand and always happened in the heat, humidity and rain of the southern summers, yet he was always there…working through it all.
He was kind and gentle and taught me more about life, people and the way we can be than almost any other adult. Growing up as a black man (he never would have used the term “African American”) in the Heart of Dixie in those days had to be incredibly difficult. I have no idea how much schooling he had, but I doubt very much, although he could read and write. When he was a boy he worked on the watercress farms that dotted the landscape of north Alabama. From aluminum jon boats the boys reached into the murky water gathering the cress from the ponds. His lower arms were covered in scars that he said were from the water moccasins or cotton mouths that often bit him. I remember staring at him open mouthed when he told me this – the dreaded cotton mouth was the most feared snake in the south and we all thought they’d kill you. He said that he’d been biten so often that he had become immune to their venom….to this day I don’t know if it was true or not…..but I believed him. As he came of age he went to work at a local cotton gin where he had the most dangerous job of feeding the cotton into the gin itself. Somewhere around 30 his hand got caught in the gin and crushed…..It never did work right after that.
James lived in Tanner about 20 miles from my home. He farmed, raising vegetables and hogs (he never called them pigs). He was married and had several daughters all of whom I didn’t meet until much later in life. He drove an old Chevrolet Cheyenne pickup truck, his right hand draped across the steering wheel because he couldn’t really “grip” the wheel, often picking me up at school in the afternoons. I told him that I would drive a truck one day….he just laughed and laughed…saying “that’s what all boys say”……I loved to listen to his stories…the lilt of his voice…his glowing skin and smile that crept across his face. Working beside him in the yard, watching him lift his hat and wipe sweat from his brow….and planting taught me patience. Every Christmas we shared gifts. I always gave him something I made, my parents gave him money and he always…always brought fresh sausage to the house for our Christmas breakfast. The flavor of that lingers in my mouth to this day……..
I’m not sure what brought all of these memories to mind over the weekend…perhaps it was what happened in Charleston early in the summer….maybe Ferguson or Baltimore or the dozen other atrocities that have happened….both those we hear about and those that never make the “news”. I’ve been blessed far more than most and have lived a life that has been wonderful and incredible. I’ve faced challenges and fears and difficulties just like everyone else, but I also know that those I’ve faced pale in comparision to those faced by folks like James Pete. The difficulties he faced – for no other reason than skin color – were enormous – very likely beyond my comprehension – and yet – he moved with grace and love through life.
I wonder what he’d say if he saw what was happening in our society today? You see I grew up in a South that was very different than the one we see today. Kathryn Stocketts book The Help was more truth than fiction. As I watch and listen to my children and their friends – many of whom are African American, I am happy to see that times are changing…just not as fast as I’d like. To be honest I’d never really thought about the Confederate battle flag and how hurtful that could be to a portion of our country. I get it now. So many of leaders are right – Black Lives do matter….so do Hispanic, Asian, White, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and every other life….they all matter. None more than the other – all very equal. As we move forward as a society and country I hope that we will all come to that realization – ALL LIVES MATTER and everyone deserves to be treated with respect because we are all human beings.
James is gone now. Without a doubt to a much better place. The sun is blazing through the trees and as I stare across this mountain towards the town of Robbinsville, I realize that the lessons and gifts he gave me are too numerable to count. He taught me about strength….the kind that comes from inside. He taught me about joy from seeing the smallest flowers bloom. He taught me how important all life is and he taught me respect, for myself and others….a lesson that the thought of him this weekend reminded me of. He taught me that if I find a glimpse of understanding in someone’s smile, touch, laugh, or connection that I am lucky beyond belief…for to be known and understood, even for a moment, fills my soul in a way that most things can’t reach. While he taught me most of these lessons when I was a boy, they’ve really just taken root. I was privileged and honored to have known him, eaten with him, shared water with him….oh….yes….and James…..I thought you’d like to know…..I drive a truck……my hand often draped across the steering wheel….just like yours.
Thank you for sharing this journey with me.
Innkeeper, Adventurer & Explorer