Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Men, Guns and a Reckoning

The road between my house and Y's was the Grand Canyon of prohibition. My parents quietly forbade us to step foot in that yard. And her folks reciprocated, with outrage and bluster. But the line of demarcation was breached, frequently, with stealth. And then with courage.

When Y's family moved in across the dirt and gravel road, we were happy to see girls our age spill from the car with Georgia plates. My father was uneasy. He had bought land adjacent and behind our rural Alabama home -- woods property -- and considered the acreage across the road. We had lived for a while in a Texas city where my sister and I were born, but my father was unhappy there, caged, he needed wide open spaces.

However, he also was the kind of man who saved 30 cents for every dime he made. He never bought on credit. So he had hesitated about buying the extra land, and was too late.

Then came the new neighbors. They set to work tidying, planting bushes and flowers. They were friendly. They didn't have a telephone, not many did in that time and place, so from time to time they would politely ask to use ours. And relatives would call them too.

Nosy by nature, I flattened myself on the floor and listened through a crack in the bottom of a closed door. The calls were to and from relatives, made and answered by both the parents and Y, who at 8 was already a surrogate parent to her younger siblings. They reported "everything's good!" No, nothing needed, assurances lavishly given. This was a blended family, as it is called today. Y's biological father lived elsewhere. But the telephone calls should have been a red flag, my mother said later. That this move was one of many new starts after times of trouble.

And the trouble started soon.

The parents dodged invitations from locals to attend church. Okay fine, my hometown is gentle, people are allowed to just be. Then my parents spotted the beer cans. Red alert.

Back then, this rural village was not the kind of place where people walked around showing off their alcohol habits. A flask tucked away in a back pocket was fine. Wine quietly served for dinner. Signs of hangovers at the Baptist church were not unheard of, certainly. But this was different.

The parents drank. In the house and outside. Then the fights started. The mother disappeared for days and weeks on end, with other men. My parents felt they had no choice. We were forbidden to go to that house.

We got around that prohibition, of course. My sister and Y's perfected a strange cry, a cross between a bird's shriek and an Indian call. One would screech, another would respond, and the tones set us into motion. Y and her sisters would go to the woods out back, move to the cover of the tall sage. When all was clear, they would scurry across the road to the forest behind my house. Then we would meet at the swamp or one of the ponds if my parents were home. At my house if not. Or reverse.

We learned to sneak. We could work for the CIA today, thanks to these early prohibitions and the slipping around they necessitated.

The parents mostly ignored each other. Except for my father. He tipped his hat, gave a nod, said hello. He got the cold shoulder back. And worse.

When Y's father was in his cups, sometimes he would come outside, stand in his yard and yell across the road, cursing us, calling us every name in the book. But one night, his belligerence flared.


He had screamed at us before in the night. My father had ignored this. My parents were teetotalers, into their churches. My father sang in the choir, taught Sunday school, was a community leader. He had old-school manners, wore suits and commuted into work and sat at a desk. R had a good job too, worked at the same federal installation as my father. Probably made the same or similar money. But he lacked the education my father had, wore a working man's clothes. Something about this ate at our neighbor. When he drank.

But my father was a World War II veteran, an engineer and gunner on a bomber in Europe. He calculated where to release the bombs that softened up Nazi targets, acted as a medic when other men were hit by flak, held on as his wounded plane managed to make it to the ground. And he'd grown up with guns, was a hunter from childhood. He also was no stranger to drink before he married my mother and she insisted he had to give that up.

Y's father had challenged the wrong man.

Lying in my bed, pretending to be asleep, I heard the familiar sound of the skeleton key clicking on the door to my father's pine wardrobe. The door opened. And I knew he was pulling out a gun -- a shotgun, a rifle, one of them. Heavy bare feet on the floor, the front door pulled open.

I dropped to the floor, crawled to the door and hid, peeking out.

My father stood on the front steps of the porch, illuminated by moonlight. He held a shotgun, pointed toward the sky. His voice a growl, fury barely restrained, he said, "You get back inside your house. Don't make me come over there. And don't you EVER come out here and yell your filth about my family again. Or there'll never be another peep heard from you. I guarantee it." Words to that effect.

R stood next to the road. He had a gun in his hands too. He was weaving. But he stopped dead in his tracks. He turned around, quickly walked into his house and closed the door without a sound. The night screaming in the yard stopped. Although there was plenty of drama, the mother's old boyfriends showing up, pounding on the door, police called, ambulances. A mess.

The freeze was even colder after that. We were dead to that family. Even the girls were not friendly to us for a while. But the mother had two more children and somehow the babies caused a thaw. And then one night, the mother was gone again, and the older kids were staying elsewhere.

And someone noticed a strange, orange glow coming from behind the windows of the house across the road. I woke up, my mother shaking my shoulder. "Wake up, that house is on fire!"

My mother was terrified, afraid the fire would spread. Y's father was outside, holding his head. He was drunk. There was no real fire department in those days. Calls had been made, but we were on our own.

My father was across the Grand Canyon of roads, holding R by the arm, shouting. "Is the baby inside? Get it together man, THINK! Is the baby inside the house?" R was confused, he couldn't remember. To our horror, he said he thought the baby was in the front bedroom, the room where he had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand, after "a couple of beers."

That was all my father needed to hear. He and a neighbor had already rigged up hoses, trying to put out the fire. It had been too much, they were driven back. But hearing a baby could be in that room with that blaze about to roar out of control was too much for my father.

He grabbed a jacket, soaked it with water, threw it over his head and shoulders and ran back into the house. I could see him through the front windows of the house I knew so well. He made a sharp right and ran fast into that place where the flames were about to engulf the entire room.

I had my issues with my father. He was moody, too quick to anger, believed in discipline by belt. But when he ran into that fire, I was seized with an ancient terror I had never known before: The earth fell away from my feet. I could not breathe. I was so dizzy I thought I was going to faint. I saw my own life flash before my eyes.

And then he emerged from the smoke, into the night air, unhurt. There's no one in there, he said. And suddenly, among the neighbors gathering one by one on the side of the road, someone from the cluster of trailers down in the woods reported that the baby was safe with one of them, had been since early in the afternoon, when R. had dropped the child off. Clearing the way for him to start his bender.

Relief. My father and the other men sprayed water to keep damage to the house to a minimum until a fire truck finally showed up. Workmen came and helped R clear up and repair. The mother showed back up and soon the family was reunited. The same hopeful scenario that had materialized countless times across that road.

Then the mother got sick. It was bad. She died quickly, died young. The older kids scattered and R lived there with another woman and a son for years, his demons tamed by age and experience, no longer taunted by his wife's wanderings.

He still sat on the porch for hours, drinking from the ever-present beer can. But he waved, said hello. And most of the time, when my father was in the yard or driveway, R would put down his can. And through the years he started nodding, standing up even. And a couple of times, before these old adversaries died, they met on the Grand Canyon of roads and stretched out their arms and wordlessly shook hands. They never spoke about the past.

But they did not need to, their gestures after years of deep freeze and animosity said everything. Those days are over and done with. We've had losses and we've endured. I'm sorry for the trouble. Thank you. It's time to settle the scores, neighbor.

They were bidding each other goodbye.


  1. Great story - I think there's a similar story in almost every little town.

  2. I think you're right. Wild times!

  3. A wonderful story about how people can reconcile. I really like this. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. It took a long time, Syd. I was glad, and I know they were too.

  5. Glimmer,
    This was beautifully written. I couldn't stop reading. Thank you for sharing it.