In this excerpt from the book the main character Braxton Hickman recounts a story of his early childhood when he was visiting his grandmother's farm. The time is 1958 in Wilson County, North Carolina. His friend Butch is recovering from a traumatic childhood experience which is revealed earlier in the novel. Brax gives another account of this incident to cheer up his depressed friend.
Tom Junior Gets Even
Butch had come a long way since his brother’s death. For the first six months afterwards, he didn’t come out of his house at all unless he was going to school or to church with his parents on Sunday. He was two years older than me, but like Bubba he had failed two grades. He was still in the first grade when I started school. He wasn’t slow, though; he just didn’t seem to care much about anything, much less learning. By the time we were in the third grade, Butch had finally come out of his shell. He started hanging out with me and Sammy after school, and he laughed for the first time when I told him about the time I almost got stung to death on Granny Hawkin’s farm. I didn’t particularly think it was funny, but over the next two years he made me repeat it and he would laugh out loud every time.
That incident happened in the summer between my second and third grade years. I was eight and Tom Junior was six, getting ready to start the first grade. Uncle Hendy had bought a set of barber’s clippers to cut all five of his sons’ hair, and the night before we went on this trip to Granny Hawkins, he invited Daddy to bring me and Tom over to get a free hair cut. He sat us both up on Aunt Ruby’s ironing board and when he got through, both of us looked like human cue balls. Mama cried when she saw us and told Daddy that we looked like children from a German concentration camp. She made us wear our Davy Crockett coonskin caps to Granny’s so we wouldn’t get sunstroke and die.
Granny lived on a farm outside of Lucama, not far from Wilson. Grandpa Hawkins died of tuberculosis in 1930 and Mama and her five sisters and two brothers were almost headed for Oxford Orphanage. However, Uncle Herbert, the oldest son who was 24, quit his job on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and told anyone who felt otherwise that no one was going to split his family up. He took over the farm and kept his family together. He sacrificed more than anyone will ever know to keep his family in tact.
There were all kinds of adventures awaiting us at the Granny’s farm. There was a big pond full of bream and bass for fishing, about fifty acres of timber for exploring, over a hundred acres of plowed fields for arrow hunting, and enough dirt-clod hand grenades to blow up a whole nest of German snipers. There was something special about the dirt in that area of the county. It was sandy loam, just the right kind of soil for growing peanuts and just the right texture to make dirt grenades that exploded like powder when they hit a chicken or a little brother. They were too soft to kill a chicken or to put a bruise on a little brother, so he and I played grenade war after lunch out in the cotton field. Tom would crouch down behind the waist-high cotton plants, grab a fresh plowed clod, and pop up and try to hit me as I went through the same motions. We would zigzag through the rows and repeat the same battle plan. He finally hit me right square in the chest just as I stood up to throw. The wind was blowing in my direction so some of the powdery dirt got in my mouth. I spit it out and decided to change my strategy. When Tom ducked, I remained standing and watched how the cotton plants moved as he slinked from one row to another. When the movement stopped, I reared back and hurled a sizable chunk that exploded into powder on his forehead as he rose up to throw. Tom’s face was covered in sweat from wearing that coonskin cap, and when he opened his eyes after the dust cleared, he looked like Al Jolson doing a blackface Daniel Boone. He started bawling so I started running. When Tom starts yelling, “I’ll kill ya, I’ll kill ya, I swear I’ll kill ya!” that’s when it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. That’s what he had yelled just before he whacked Tojo in the head with a tobacco stick, so I ran. However, I made the mistake of laughing out loud as I did so, and that just compounded his anger.
In the meantime, I headed to the mulberry tree beside Granny’s privy, or Johnny house as we used to call it. Doing my Tarzan yell, I climbed the tree and swung over to the top of the privy and stood there eating the biggest, sweetest mulberries in Wilson County, largely because the tree’s roots under the privy were absorbing some fine fertilizer of human origin. All of a sudden something hit me on the back of the head like a bolt of lightning. If I hadn’t been wearing that thick coonskin cap, which absorbed some of the blast, it would have knocked me out cold. Crying, I turned around to see Al Jolson standing at the corner of the shingled pack house tossing a clump of dried red clay up and down in his right hand. He just stood there laughing and daring me to come after him. “You better run, Thomas Richard Hickman, Jr.,” I yelled still crying, “cause when I catch you, I’m gone beat the hell out you!”
Tom just stood his ground, still standing there tossing that red clay clod, waiting for me so he could try to knock my head off with the next volley. I jumped off the Johnny house, took the coonskin cap off, and used it like a baseball glove to catch the forthcoming projectile. However, instead of throwing the clump at me, just before I got to him, he looked up and threw the clay right into the corner of the roof. Then he tore out like a squirrel being chased by old Bullet. Five seconds later I was welcomed by what seemed like ten thousand angry hornets. They dived bombed my head like kamikaze pilots and started the most God-awful stinging rampage a human being could possibly endure and live to tell about. I slapped my face and head with both hands and half a dozen dead wasps fell to the ground with each hit. I ran screaming to the back of Granny’s house where she was washing garden tomatoes by the pump. When she saw all the wasps buzzing around my head, she cried out, “Lord, God a mighty!” and reached on the porch table and rolled up a newspaper. When I jumped on the porch, she started pounding my head, killing all the remaining hornets. My face was on fire and began to swell hideously. My right eye was swollen shut, but out of my left eye, I could see myself in Uncle Herbert’s shaving mirror on the back porch and I was reminded of a picture I had seen in a magazine of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Granny then grabbed me by the arm and dragged me in the kitchen. She wrapped a towel around my neck and told me to close my eyes, which were already swollen shut anyway, and then she poured apple vinegar all over my head and rubbed it around with her hands. I could feel her then using tweezers to pull out the stingers. By now Mama had come into the kitchen and when she saw me, she started crying and yelling, “Oh my God!”
Granny took control of the situation. “Mabel, get me the flour and baking soda out of the cupboard and my big mixing bowl down below.” “Mama, we need to take Brax to the hospital or he’s gone surely die!”
That comment really did a number on me, and I started bawling again.
“Mabel, just calm down and get me what I asked for. This child ain’t gone die. He’s too damn ornery to drop dead from a bee sting, and besides I know more about such remedies than them expensive doctors over at the hospital in Wilson.”
I could hear the cabinet doors open and shut, the sound of stuff being dumped in a bowl, some liquid being poured, and a couple of eggs breaking. Then I heard Granny mixing all this in her big bowl. Next I could feel her smearing this sticky paste all over my head, face, and neck. When she was finished, she pinched off some of it under my nose, and then she stuck her finger in my mouth and rubbed it from side to side to make openings for me to breathe. She told me sit there and not to move until all of this mixture was dry and stiff feeling. I don’t know all the ingredients Granny put in that concoction, but pretty soon the fire had subsided and I could tell the swelling was going away. I sat there for at least a half hour before the paste dried into a type of plaster of paris. The puffiness around my eyes had diminished enough so that I could stretch my eyes open. To counteract the blindness I peeled off flakes of the plaster around my eyes and went out on the porch to look at myself in Uncle Herbert’s mirror. I had now gone from being the Elephant Man to the Lon Chaney version of the Phantom of the Opera. Four year old Sissy wandered out on the back porch with a doll under her arm and when she saw me she screamed so loud she had the whole house scrambling out the back door. They all started laughing at my expense. Sadie laughed so hard she had tears in her eyes. I would have spit on her if the adults hadn’t been there. Granny told Mama and me that the mask had to stay in place for several hours to draw all the poison out of the stings. The only fun I had with my new persona occurred when two of the little colored children on the farm came down the path to pick up apples that had fallen in Granny’s orchard. Neither one of them was over six years old. When I saw them approaching the yard, I hid around the corner of the chicken coop about ten yards from the apple trees. When they had their backs to me, I peeped around the corner and started making werewolf growls. The littler one looked around and when all she could see was this white-faced Frankenstein-looking monster, she screamed louder than Sissy and started bawling. Her older brother did likewise and they both tore down the path so fast they looked like the Little Rascals when the film editors speed up the frames. I bent over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and ran behind them with my arms hanging down like a zombie. If someone had been timing them with a stop watch, they would have set a world record for their age bracket. Sitting on the front porch, Uncle Herbert, Granny, and Mama got a big laugh out of my escapade, but Daddy didn’t seem to think it was funny. He probably would have whipped me for psychologically ruining those children for life if I hadn’t already suffered enough that day from the hands of my little brother.
After I had given Butch the third rendering of this story in synopsis form, highlighting the clod war, the stinging, and the terrorizing the children, he laughed out loud just like he had the first two times I had told it. It was refreshing to see him in good spirits.
Copyright © 2015 by Raymond R. Viverette
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