The North Florida heat was sweltering as me and my brothers and sisters danced around on the packed earth that was our backyard. Although my parents were staunch Christians and abhorred anything worldly, as children we could sing the blues and dance like “ninety going west.” Mr. Lois Jordan was one of our favorite singers and this was one of our favorite songs:
“Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun.
You only live once
And when you’re dead you’re done.
So let the good times roll
I don’t care if you’re young or old
Let’s all get together, and let the good times roll.”
For my ten siblings and me, Mr. Jordan really hit the nail on the head when he sang this ole blues song.
The tune personified our lives as happy, mischievous kids growing up on our farm in rural North Florida. We lived in a lovely farmhouse that my Poppa built from the ground up.
The house had seven bedrooms, a large kitchen, and spacious dining room; spaciousness was necessary because we were required to dine together at every meal. Also included was a study for my Poppa, the fireplace room, the living room, a parlor, and get this: one—yes, I said one, bathroom.
One of our favorite after-school games was called “The Race To The Throne.” The game required me, Verlinda, and Sandy—my two younger sisters—to race each other from the bus stop to the house hollering, “Dibs on the bathroom, dibs on the bathroom.” We were not allowed to yell or run inside the house, so when we entered the front door, we stopped running and started speed-walking. We politely said, “Good evening,” to our parents, who waited patiently for us to get home from school; then, we hurriedly tossed our books on our neatly-made beds and hurried to the porcelain finish line. Verlinda almost always won the race, not because she was faster, but because she played dirty. She would run ahead then stop on a dime, causing the kid behind her to bump into her, drop all her books and everything else, and have to stop and pick up her belongings. While Sandy and I were picking up our belongings after one of Verlinda’s short-stops, she would run ahead to claim her coveted place on the porcelain throne.
The door to our bathroom was held shut by a small piece of flat wood similar to a paint stirrer and nailed into the door frame. Once inside, the winner of the race would secure the door by turning the latch across it, which afforded minimal privacy. Because we rarely used public facilities, especially the stalls at school, our sense of urgency was genuine. The winner would strip buck naked and with a good book in hand (we all had a penchant for Edger Allen Poe) and the aroma of Aurora scented toilet paper in the air, sit on the throne for some much-needed rest and relaxation.
However, the first and fastest sister to gain entrance to the bathroom did not always enjoy the quiet, undisturbed solitude she so urgently sought. The sisters who came in second and third in line often played a little game we called “Free Show” on the winner. The losers, usually Sandy and I, waited patiently outside the bathroom door for Verlinda to get comfy and totally vulnerable. We then jimmied the latch, opened the door wide for all to see, and sounding like a carnival barker, began the methodical process of totally humiliating and mortifying the winner. Holding the bathroom door wide open, we would bark in true Carney style:
“Ladieeees and gentlemen, boyz and girls of all ages. Step right up. Step right up. One nickel to see the gargoyle. The gargoyle walks, the gargoyle talks, the gargoyle crawls on her belly like a reptile.
Verlinda could only sit on the toilet naked and fuming, hissing, “I’m gonna git yall.” But Verlinda’s threats were wasted because we would quickly retreat to the safety of our mother’s side.
“What’s all that racket about?” my mother would ask.
“Oh, we were just playing,” I innocently replied.
Verlinda had a vengeful streak, and to procure her revenge, she would stalk me for days. She made it a point to let me know that one day, like an ole whoo, whoo owl, she was going to swoop down and git me.
She derived great pleasure from knowing that her very proximity made me jumpy, but it was her absence that made me as nervous as a long-tail cat in a room filled with rockers, because I never knew when she would pop up.
One day, when I thought she had forgotten about her promise of vengeance, she would strike, fast and hard. Verlinda was patient; she would wait until I least expected it before making her move.
One Saturday afternoon while sitting on the porch shelling white acre peas, I heard something or someone coming down the hallway. It was fast and sounded like the wind. Yep, it was Verlinda. She had started running from the back door, picking up speed, like a bullet from a .22 rifle she shot down that hallway, headed straight for the front porch. With my lap filled with white acre peas, there was nothing I could do without spilling them. Ole Verlinda swept by, whopped me hard upside the head, and—never slowing down—jumped off the porch and into the yard, landing on her feet like an ole puma cat. Poetic justice? You tell me.
We had everything we needed right on the farm, right down to our security system, which consisted of our two dogs, Rex, a brown pit bull mix, and Jerry, a brindled terrier mix. The dogs always stood sentry and when a stranger came toward the house they would bark and growl until they were called off.
If it was a friend, we yelled at the dogs to “Come here Rex, Come here Jerry; Good dawgs, Good ole dawgs.” If it was someone who was not supposed to be on our property, like ole Jug Head Jones, who only wanted to start trouble, we would yell for the dogs to “Sic ’em boys, sic ’em.”
On our farm, we raised every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Blackberries grew wild but we were not allowed to pick them because it was not unusual for them ole snakes to hide in the thickets. Although off limits, we would sneak down the road and pick handfuls of the sweet juicy blackberries, gobbling them down as we walked back home. Although we considered ourselves to be some pretty smart customers, sometimes we would forget and go inside the house, where my mother would ask, “Where have you kids been? Have y’all been in those blackberry bushes?”
Without as much as a second thought, we lied.
“Nome, we ain’t had no blackberries.”
Mother replied, “Line up and stick out your tongues.”
When we stuck out our tongues, Mother could see the dark purple blackberry juice. Swat on the bottom. On to the next kid, tongue stuck out, swat to the bottom. Mother went down the line, looking at tongues and swatting behinds. It didn’t hurt, but we all cried because we knew that if we didn’t, Mama would say, “Oh, you are grown, ain’t going to cry?” Then, when we started to cry, Mama would say, “Hush that racket.” She swatted us for not crying, then swatted us for crying. What was a kid to do?
With so many tongues to inspect, Mama soon tired of swatting and told us to “Git outside and play,” and we were happy to oblige.
We were happy to occupy our lives playing, when we didn’t have work to do. But there was almost always work to do because on the farm we grew corn, peanuts, peas, okra, tomatoes, collards, mustard, and turnip greens in addition to a large variety of melons and fruit. However, our cash harvest was shade tobacco, a very labor-intensive crop.
Daddy also made our syrup from sugar cane grown on our farm. Yes, there was lots of hard work to be done, which left little time for what my Daddy referred to as “getting into mischief.”
Nonetheless, no matter how hard our Daddy tried to keep us out of mischief, he was just one man; so when Daddy left in the mornings for the fields, we commenced to looking for what we referred to as “an adventure.”
For us, adventures came in various forms. The farm was rife with potential subjects for our shenanigans. Our cows Betsey and Red Bones were opposites in terms of their dispositions. Betsey had a sweet, calm disposition while her progeny, Red Bones, was a small, frisky heifer and would not hesitate to use her horns to challenge us. So, naturally, Red Bones was often the focus of our pranks.
My youngest brother Sammy and my sister Cleo were usually the authors of our devilment. Poppa considered idle hands to be the Devil’s workshop, and our hands were certainly never idle – not always productive, but never, ever idle. How could they be, with so much tomfoolery afoot? Whether it was tying a fat green-horned worm with twine and waiting for a greedy hen to gobble it up, before pulling it out of her gullet or administering a dose of Black Draught to ole Towser and letting nature take its course, we took no prisoners.
Always looking for excitement, we were high-risk kids. Verlinda, Sandy and I, the three youngest of the brood, loved to play a made up game called “Fat Sow Rodeo.” Daddy grew prize hawgs; some were for the market, but the best were raised for slaughter. Sometimes, when we would hear Daddy’s big tractor plowing or harrowing way out in the back fields, we knew it was safe to pull the long dugout trough away from the fence. We made sure the hawgs were positioned with their fat rumps toward us and their heads facing away. Then my two younger sisters and I filled the trough with some nice corn and delicious sweet sorghum. The combination was to the hawgs what a cold Nehi grape soda was to a hot sweaty kid during the sweltering, dog days of summer—-irresistible.
We sat perched on the fence and called those ole hawgs. “Here piggy, piggy, piggee!” When they heard our calls, those ole fat hawgs would come a running. The only thing a hawg loved better than the food was more food. When the hawgs were snout deep in the delectable corn and sweet sorghum, my two sisters and I would point out the fat sow we wanted to ride. After choosing our sow bronco, we would balance ourselves on the fence, poised to jump. When it was my turn, I would leap from the fence and onto the sow’s ample back. I grabbed that ole sow by her ears and yelled “yeee haw,” lying flat on her back and holding on for dear life.
Those ole sows were not as dumb as we had thought. They would let out a loud squeal and head straight for the bushes. We yelled “yippie, yippie,” laughing and holding on for all it was worth. It was not a problem when the sows ran for the bushes. We were rough and tumble farm kids, and a few bushes were not going to spoil our fun. However, there was just one problem that we had not factored into the equation—-the Chinquapin bushes that grew prolifically in the thick underbrush. Those chinquapin burrs were covered in tiny spikes and could do a lot of damage to an adventurous kid. When that ole sow ran into those chinquapin bushes, and the burs scratched our legs and arms, causing us to let go before tumbling to the ground. The score quickly changed, sows-3, kids-0. But a few scratches didn’t stop us for long.
We were just kids looking for a little fun and adventure, so “we let the good times roll,” soon off and looking for another.
In our small community, we were thought to be exemplary kids. We didn’t cuss, steal, or lie. My Daddy was the senior deacon at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, so his children were held to a higher standard of virtue.
The people of the community did not refer to us by our individual names; Me (Glory), sister Verlinda, baby girl Sandy, sister Cella, sister Cleo, youngest boy Sammy, older brother Manuel, older brother Bo, eldest child brother Tee, older sister Clancy, and eldest girl Reno—we were simply referred to as “Deacon Alford’s chilluns.” The members of our God-fearing, church-going family were not allowed to dance or smoke, and the girls were not allowed to wear makeup of any kind.
Along those lines, my Daddy strictly forbade dancing, but my older sisters and brothers could out-dance anyone far and near. We could dance the Hucklebuck like Highway 90 going west. Whenever Daddy and my older brothers were way out in the fields, we would gather around my brother Sammy and follow his lead as he sang just like Mr. Paul Williams:
“Push your partner out then you hunch your back
Start a little movement in your sacroiliac
Wiggle like a snake, wobble like a duck
That’s what you do when you do the Hucklebuck.”
Oh, what a wonderful life we lived. We were all laughing, doing cartwheels, and having a grand ole time. What made it even more fun was knowing that we were getting away with our hijinks. However, not everyone could join in on the revelry, because my poor mother, who everyone called Miss Patience, was always busy cooking, cleaning and doing laundry for her brood, therefore, she entrusted the care of the younger kids to the older ones.
During one of those fun-filled Saturday summer days, when Daddy was away in town, my brother Samuel came up with a great idea.
Although Sammy was a boy of only about ten or eleven years old, he carried himself like a little man. He had fashioned for himself a corncob pipe, and although he never smoked it, he would walk around puffing on it with his chest stuck out like a banty rooster. He cut quite the figure.
Once while walking around looking for an adventure, Sammy eyes lit up. “Stand back folks, I got a idea.” “Since tomorrow is Sunday, what say we git ole Red Bones dressed for church?”
As usual, Miss Patience was busy trying to stay ahead of the housework created by thirteen people. So, the coast was clear for Sammy and Cleo to sneak into my parent’s room, which always smelled of homemade soap and peppermint candy, and without making a sound, took Poppa’s best navy blue church suit from the large wooden chifforobe. As we stood outside in the yard, impatiently waiting for them to return, I started to have second thoughts. After all, my Poppa was not a man you wanted to cross paths with. But when Sammy and Cleo ran through the front door carrying Daddy’s best suit, I knew that the time for second thoughts had passed.
As Sammy ran past me, I got a whiff of Daddy’s suit, which always had a subtle aroma of Luden’s cough drops. It was a wonderful scent that would linger with me to this day. Holding on to Poppa’s suit, Cleo led the procession to the corral where the cows were milked. Carrying a bucket of grain, Sammy went out into the pasture and led the cows back up to the gate. He deftly grabbed the cow bell around ole Red Bones’ neck and led her to the milking stall where he secured her so that she could not buck or kick. Then Sammy and Cleo climbed into the stall with that ole moo cow and managed to put daddy’s blue suit pants on the cow’s hind end. Once they had Poppa’s pants on her, they threw Poppa’s freshly cleaned suit jacket across Red Bones’ back with her front legs poking through the arm holes of the jacket. The rest of us stood in quiet awe as Sammy and Cleo placed a pair of Manuel’s brogans on her front feet and Tee’s blue baseball cap atop her head.
When everything was in place, Sammy stood back with his hand rubbing his chin, admiring his work. “Now that’s a damn good looking heffah,” he bragged like only Sammy could do.
When we saw that cow, we laughed so hard we thought we would bust a gut. We rolled around on the ground as we laughed and pointed at that ole moo cow. I do declare that was the funniest sight I had ever seen in my life.
But the game was not over. As Brother Sammy stood before the group, he cleared his throat, just like Poppa did when he was about to say something important. Then, just like Reverend Gilmore, pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, he began to speak:
“Bruthas and sistas, today’s surmen is taken from de twenty-thuid chapta of P-salms.” Kin I git a Amen?”
And we all responded, “Amen, Revun Sammy, Amen!”
Sammy paused, and after a sufficient number of Amens, he resumed his sermon.
“I say, de Loid is my shappard, I say, I shall not want.
“Amen, Revun, preach the word,” someone responded.
As Sammy became more and more involved in his sermon, we started to shout, just like we had seen the grownups do in church. My older sister Clancy jumped up from the log, which acted as our pew, and pretended to faint, falling to the ground with outstretched arms.
We, the ladies of the congregation, gathered around her, tapping her wrists and fanning her with fans made from dried corn shucks. She soon regained her composure and was escorted back to her seat.
Revun Sammy continued with his sermon.
“You know brothers and sistas, he maketh me to lie down in dem ole green pastas. Let de church say Amen.”
And we all responded, “Amen, Revun Sammy, Amen.”
Now, my brother Bo played a mean set of drums using an old #9-wash-tub and two sticks that he had whittled from a walnut limb.
Birrrump, birrrump, birrump, bump, bump, he played in time with Revun Sammy’s condemnation of worldly abominations. Soon Sammy, as only Sammy could do, had everyone on their feet jumping around and pretending to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He even laid hands on ole sista Red Bones, who stood looking wild-eyed at the sacrilegious commotion taking place.
Revun Sammy continued, “Fatha, if it be thy will, pleeeese extract the evil spirits from Sista Redbones. Please sur, jes tuch hu and make hu stop hu ole wicket ways. Ooooh Lowdey, stop hu from cussin’ and dancin’ in de juke joints. Please, fobid hu from smokin’ dem ole tabaccey cigeretts and swiggin dat ole evil moonshine, make hu cease all hu sinful ways.”
Revun Sammy laid his hand on Sista Red Bones’ confused forehead and, in a high pitched voice, commanded, “All ye demons I summon you to come ooout!” He was at a fever pitch, and we were jumping around shouting and singing dem ole spiritual songs.
We were nearing the end of a particularly soulful hymn entitled, “A Charge To Keep I Have,” which happened to be Daddy’s favorite, when Revun Sammy said, “Now moan it chilluns, cause when you moan it, dat ole red devil don’t know what you saying.”
Bo was banging, bang, banging on dat ole tub and everyone was having a good time in de name of de Loid.
We were all so busy shouting, moaning, and pretending to shudder wid de Holy Spirit, we failed to hear Poppa’s big truck downshift as it turned off the hard road onto our sandy dirt road. We were jumping around shouting and yelling, “Preach Revun, preach!”
We waved our hands in the air as Daddy’s green 1944 International truck eased into the driveway. He blew the truck’s horn, a signal for us to come running to open the gate.
When we saw Daddy’s truck, we stopped in our tracks, our eyes stretched wide in surprise. So help me, our eyes were as large as an ole hoot owl’s. Our mouths were agape as we stood there motionless, our feet seemingly riveted to the ground. We could not “gee” nor “haw,” much less “giddy-up,” and our little bellies felt like we had swallowed an old green horned worm and someone was trying to yank it from our bellies. My sister Reno didn’t have much of a stomach for trouble, and she stood in the back of the group quietly peeing herself. Even Sammy had a look that clearly said, “Loid jes take me on up to hevin right now.” We all felt that we stood a better chance with God than with our Poppa.
Our reaction was uncanny because Poppa had never struck any of us in anger. I think our worst fear was simply based in disappointing him.
Daddy took his time and got out of the truck to open the gate. He drove the truck through and moved to close it, but suddenly stopped, then looking at us. As he looked, he followed our line of sight.
What did he see but that ole red heifer cow wearing his best Sunday suit. Sam stood spellbound, others were hypnotized, some mesmerized, and a few were downright traumatized as Poppa focused in on that ole moo cow.
He looked at his children, then he looked at the cow again, then back at us. When he looked at the cow again and looked for us, there were only traces of where we once stood because we had scattered to the four winds.
I’ll tell ya, there were youngins running everywhere. Two were tussling for a limb in the old dogwood tree, others burrowed under corn shucks inside the corn crib, one lay flat atop the chicken coop, and another chased the pups from under the house, using their cool, dark space as a hiding place. One of my older sisters even climbed into the pig pen, causing the hogs to woof and squeal in protest, and Cella ran into the tobacco barn and climbed way up into the crow’s roost. The rest of Revun Sammy’s congregants made a line for the cornfield, the long glossy green razor sharp leaves nicking bare arms as they zipped past. I was safely ensconced in a trough used to hold grain for the cows. Why, friends, there were youngins hiding all over the place.
My Poppa was normally a very reserved man who only spoke when he felt something merited saying. Poppa did not speak, he just turned and headed back to his truck. That was when ole Sammy yelled at the top of his lungs, “Y’all better run, he goin’ to git his gun.”
Oh, Lawdie, didn’t we scatter once again. Push had come to shove, and there was a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on, to find even better hiding places. We looked like a brood of hungry chickens running around chasing after a June Bug. We collided with trees and fell to the ground, looking for better hiding places.
My sister Cella snagged her best bloomers as she slid down from the top of the chicken coop.
The tassels on the corn stalks shook as little brown bodies ran deeper into the corn field trying to find better concealment.
We all agreed later that Sammy, being the brains of the operation, had the best hiding spot. Why that ole boy ran out in that cornfield and removed the clothes from the scarecrow. He quickly put on the scarecrow’s ole plaid shirt, then slid on its washed out overalls, not forgetting to adorn his head with the scarecrow’s ole straw hat. Sammy then held out his arms and bowed his straw covered head as if in prayer and stood perfectly still. From a distance it was impossible to tell that the straw-filled scarecrow had been replaced by a little devilment-filled boy.
It was not long after all of the skinned knees, torn bloomers, and nicks and cuts, that we realized that Poppa was not going to get his gun. He was only going to get the remaining groceries from the truck. He didn’t say a word as he walked past us. He walked within inches of some of our hiding places, looking neither right nor left but straight ahead, disappearing into the coolness of the back door of the house.
Was he going to punish us? No matter how well hidden, we all knew that when Poppa called us, one by one, we would answer. We were sure that when Poppa beckoned us, he was going to stripe our jackets, and we would have deserved our fate.
As the ringleader, we all knew that Sammy had a master plan to get us out of the mess that he had created. That’s why we were astonished when Sam was the first to break rank. With straw falling from his clothes, tears running down his dusty face, and a snotty nose, he ran to Poppa like a whipped pup.
“Daddy, I’m so sorry, Please, please forgive me. It was Glory’s idea, she made us do it.”
I say, I say, whaaaat? It was as if that ole Sammy had pushed me in front of a herd of ole man’ Perkin’s stampeding longhorn cows. And it felt like all dem ole cows were all jabbing me in de butt wid dey long sharp horns. I was so mad I couldn’t hold back. So I screwed up my face real good and started bawlin’, too. I had the upper hand–I was much younger than Sam and a girl. So I ran to my Poppa. “Poppa, Poppa, no, I didn’t do it.” Speaking in a childish third person, I cried, “No I didn’t do it, Glory didn’t do it.” As my Poppa reached down to palm my head in his large hand, a peculiar way he had of making us feel better, I slyly stuck out my tongue at Sammy in victory. You see, Daddy loved his boys, carrying on his lineage and all, but he absolutely adored his girls, since we were so frail and helpless, you see.
Frail and helpless, humm? I was laughing ‘bout that then and I am still laughing today, after so many years.
As that ole Sammy clung to Poppa’s leg, crying like a girl, everybody else hesitatingly abandoned their hiding places. The gig was up. They crawled out under, over, and down from their hiding places. As they came out, they gathered around Daddy, each one jockeying for position to get as close to him as possible.
Daddy looked down at us, making a mental count. With concern in his voice he asked,
“Where is the baby.”
That was when we realized that Baby Sandy was missing. Daddy said just two stern words. “Find her.”
And again we all spread out in different directions, looking for Baby Sandy. We looked everywhere we thought she could be, but it was after about thirty-five minutes of desperate looking that we saw Daddy walking out of the corn field carrying a still sleeping Sandy in his arms. Now that everyone was present and accounted for, Daddy led his tired, hungry, and relieved progeny into the coolness of our house.
It was After Poppa left to tend to Red Bones that my mother took note of all the dirty faces, skinned arms, and hair filled with straw. My poor mother, she let out a delicate sigh. “What have you kids been up to? Go git those wash tubs and commence to bathing yourselves. Sammy, git out to that pump and bring down plenty of water for the girls, then you take that foot tub and git in that barn to bathe yourself.” “And I want it done it in short order, ‘cause I don’t want your Pa seeing you looking like a bunch of street urchins. Now git, all of you.”
As we took turns bathing ourselves, I began to understand why Poppa didn’t whip us. The ratio was ten to one, oldest brother Tee, always worked at my Poppa’s side. But as for the rest of us, Poppa didn’t want to spend the rest of his life raising a bunch of youngins who feared him.
Many years later as a graduate student writing my dissertation, I would sometimes get caught up in the minutia of the topic. My primary professor would say with a sigh, “Gloria, choose the mountain you die on.” In other words, you can’t make a battle of everything that comes your way. Poppa had chosen his mountain that day, so he never spoke of the rumpus again. He didn’t chastise us, didn’t whip us, or punish us. Most importantly, friends and neighbors, Daddy never wore that navy blue suit again.
And let de church say, “Praise de Loid and let de good times roll.”