ON HE RODE — Chapter Twenty-Seven

Heading south now in the already too-hot late morning of a day that
will only get hotter as I hum along down the road to Frenario and
beyond. What’ve I got to lose? When you’ve got nothing . . .? Still no
weed, radio, or penile implants, but, oh well, keep a-movin, Dan.

The penile implant thing will likely never happen. Most times it seems
almost insane to even think about it, but it’s one of those notions
that once, er, implanted keeps raising its weary head at times of
worry and distress. Or whenever. I was just seventeen, you know what I
mean, when I sold Acme boots and Levi’s jeans at a men’s store and
locker club near the PSNS main gate.

A summer of talking to sailors almost my own age provided information
and inspiration of a kind unavailable to less well-positioned
teenagers. You want a really sharp individually tailored suit, cost
you next to nothing? Hong Kong’s your ticket, but bring your own
thread or your beautiful suit will fall apart the first time you wear
it because Chinese thread is crap. You like ginch? Try Pusan pudenda,
the most beautiful selection of VD carriers in the world, a surprise
bonus for the unwary.

Specialty items? A particular specialty of Asian port cities is an
elective surgery much favored by world-class cocksmen involving
strategically placed seed pearls, just under the skin. Black guys
particularly, it was said, as if they weren’t already advantaged
enough. An idea whose time had come, it’s stuck with me and keeps
popping up at the oddest of times, sometimes popping over to the
grainy but true memory of Albert Thomas and the minstrel show nobody
talks about.

Nobody seemed to know when they arrived, let alone where from, their
creaky, donkey-powered wagon, a slow-moving highway menace worse than
Ole Menard’s Farmall, which at least had a real motor. A donkey, no
less. Not even a mule.

Not that the Thomas family spent a lot of time on the road once they
moved into the graveled groin separating our one southbound highway
into two, a high road and a low. The wagon was usually parked neatly
beside their shack, the donkey tethered under nearby scrub alders.

Robust, friendly, but private. Nobody knew what to think. Who were
they? Where were they from? Why were they here? They might have
stepped out of “Gone with the Wind” or “Song of the South”, a time
long ago and a land far away. The big question: Would there be more?

Albert was a couple grades ahead of me in school and many shades
darker than me in hue. Though already man-size, he was clearly not
done extending those long, still-chubby appendages. How tall would he
get, how . . . BIG?

I’d rarely see Albert except at recess. He did not participate in
competitive athletics and seemed to be seriously exploring the laws of
invisibility. If there was a shadowy copse or a dark corner, he’d be
in it, a zone of silence, home base. I don’t remember ever hearing him
speak. He had an older sister I rarely saw, and large, dark, quietly
affable parents. The palms of their hands were the same color as mine.
How could that be?

The Thomas family began attending Sunday services at one of the local
community churches, driving up in their donkeymobile and parking under
a shady maple. That’s when the news came out that Mrs. Thomas could
really sing, not just loud and in tune but so beautifully rich and
fine you could not doubt the sacred virtue of its source.

“You ought to hear her sing ‘Church in the Wildwood.’”

“Or ‘That Old Rugged Cross.’ It’s really something.”

Church attendance shot up, and members readily exchanged smiles and
friendly words with this musical treasure.

So whose idea was it to stage a minstrel show? No one person ever took
credit or blame, but there was a small cadre of local movers and
shakers whose ideas about community projects and events were generally
agreed-to by the woodsy spread of community-at-large. This time they
were intent on building a community playground on donated land just
across the road from the elementary school. It needed to be bulldozed
and fenced. A backstop would be built for Little League baseball.
Volunteers would provide the labor, and materials would be bought with
proceeds from the minstrel show. Perfect.

Kids my age were mostly shielded from discussions about this project
and its benefits, but we could feel a level of tension signaling
abnormal risks of a kind we struggled to understand. It seems the
project’s success or failure would depend largely on Mrs. Thomas’s
willingness to star. She had apparently agreed quite readily, so what
was the problem? Some said she had no choice in the matter, not if you
thought about it. Others said the whole idea of a minstrel show
promoted a negative stereotype. Still others said people would be so
impressed with Mrs. Thomas’s singing it would make them appreciate
Negroes more. Nobody said “nigger” or even “colored”. Negroes were
people, like us. Except they had darker skin and could sing better.

Eventually I found that they were quicker, faster, bigger, stronger,
maybe smarter, and they were secretly conspiring on a vast scale to
ultimately head the white world into numbing complacency and final
doom. At best, involuntary servitude; at worst, permanent surcease of
sorrow. But I wasn’t aware of these ideas yet. I just knew there was a
level of excitement surrounding the forthcoming minstrel show that
rivaled a county track meet or an election. Nobody seemed to know
whether it was good or bad to have a stage full of white people with
cork-blackened faces as the supporting cast for the star performer, a
Negro. Homage or insult? Which was it? How would it be seen?

Whatever it was, the Thomas family quietly, proudly attended all four
evening performances, walking to the school auditorium from home.
Well-attended at each performance over two weekends, it was reviewed
by both “The Weekly Journal” and “The Daily Sun”, unanimous in praise
of Mrs. Thomas, salted by a few dismissive chuckles about the
supporting cast’s lack of support. It seems the white-faced plantation
owner became pink-faced when he forgot his lines, the chorus seemed
unrehearsed, and the story line felt implausible. Not bad for a bunch
of try-hard hillbillies really, but — no offense — the best parts came
when Mrs. Thomas had the stage to herself, her sonorous voice
mesmerizing the audience. No argument here, though I only saw one
performance and went home humming. Summertime. The livin’ is easy..

The take from the minstrel show exceeded expectations, assuring that
the playground would be built, complete with backstop. Congratulations
all around.

“We oughtta have a minstrel show every week. Make us all rich.”

“Where we gonna get all that burnt cork?”

“Maybe bring in some dark imports? Do our singing for us.”

“We already got enough imports.”

“Got that right.”

“Damn straight.”

As far as I know, things never came to a head, they just swelled up
and oozed away, a little at a time. When the deacon said the Thomases
could no longer park their donkey in the parking lot, they stopped
going to church. I heard talk about drunks throwing beer bottles and
other things at their roof from the high road to Shelton, rocks,
sticks, old tires.

And there was an incident between Albert walking home from school and
a carload of young geniuses from around Mission Creek. Somebody said
it was a good thing for the guys in the car that Albert decided to
outrun them. As big as he was getting, he could’ve handled the lot of
them.

Then, without notice of any kind, the Thomas family slipped away from
our community and out of our lives. Nobody seemed to know exactly when
they left or which direction they headed. Although their gray,
flat-roofed shack was dark and empty, drunks kept chunking rocks and
bottles. Then somebody managed to roll an old Studebaker Champion off
the embankment straight into the Thomas shack, taking down a wall and
embedding self under the collapsed roof.

That’s the way things stood — a standing Studebaker joke: “Still can’t
tell if it’s comin’ or goin’” — a too-familiar neighborhood fixture, a
place for Himalaya blackberries to climb and kids to explore. Then, it
seemed almost inevitable, something or somebody set it blazing and the
volunteer fire department massaged it into a quietly submissive
meltdown of flattened metal on black ash. Good practice for the
volunteers. Good riddance to a damned eyesore.

From penile implants to Albert Thomas. Let’s see now, can I afford
time from my busy travel schedule for a quick squint at Hoover Dam?
Lake Mead? Why the hell not, Lord willing?

Mahalo for reading!

Talk story

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