Poppa and old man Allman were sitting in front of the hardware store when I rode up on my bike. Each man held a stick of wood in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. Whittling was the preferred occupation of the old men in town. “There now,” poppa said, sliding the blade smoothly down the stick he peeled away a thin curl of wood. The sliver floated down to join the growing pile at his feet. ”That’s a sharp knife.”
“I reckon your right, Jess,” Allman said ruefully, and handed over a five dollar bill.
Poppa flashed his yellow dentures in a grin and stuffed the money into the bib pocket of his overalls.
There were steps in front of the hardware store where the old men in town liked to sit and talk. I dropped my bike on the sidewalk and sat down. He winked at me conspiratorially and continued talking to Mr. Allman. “If you want me to put an edge on that knife of yours…”
The entry bell rang as a customer opened the door of the store.
“I got to go to work,” Allman said. “The store won’t run itself.” He dusted off, and went inside.
A young man in a crisp looking Army uniform exited the Dinner Bell Diner across the way and soon walked out of sight.
“Were you ever in the army, poppa?”
The old man seemed hesitant. Maybe he had to sort out his memories or maybe he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell the story. He said nothing for a while. “I was in the National Guard during the Knoxville riots,” He said. “Back then everyone was worried about the blacks taking over and for some reason I don’t even understand now; I was worried about it too. If the slave owners could have seen the grief that would result from the choices they made they might have done things a little different-but then again, human nature being what it is, they might have done the same damn thing. Hell, this country is still trying to get over the whole sorry business.
“They been teaching us about civil war history in school,” I said.
Hmm, well in 1919 the south was fighting the same losing battle all over again, like a blind rider whipping a dead horse. Of course, nobody realized it. Things always appear different when you take a look back.
“When we first got to Knoxville we were loaded up with rubber bullets.” The old man laughed, “It was kind of like a game to us. The rubber bullets were called ‘non lethal rounds’, and we weren’t intending to kill anyone. They sure was trying to kill us though. Black folks were sniping at us from buildings and trees around town. They come out to fight like a damn army.”
“You men will be required to disperse the crowd,” the sergeant told us. “Just follow your orders and everything will be all right.”
“We were what you’d call “peace time” soldiers. I worked at a saw mill when I wasn’t doing the army rigmarole. Money was scarce and most of us joined up just to make a little extra. We didn’t know anything about ‘dispersing the crowd.”
“A couple of our men got shot- wounded by ‘enemy’ fire. That’s when old Sarge (Sergeant Thompson) ordered us to switch to live ammo. I didn’t fire that gun a time after that. We were carrying M14 rifles loaded with 308 rounds. I used to deer hunt a lot and my Winchester fired the same size bullets. They could do a lot of damage.”
The old man sighed loudly. “Somebody mounted up a couple of browning machine guns on Vine Street and then the whole business got out of hand quick. One of our boys jumped up to move forward about the same time they decided to start firing that damn gun. It was bad timing on his part- that machine gun cut into him like a buzz saw. The meat flew off of him when those bullets hit– Me and him was friends too.”
“Knoxville was just a regular American town but bodies was laying in the street. You might try to imagine the kind of damage that a machine gun can do, but your imagination will never come close to how bad it really was. I dream about it from time to time and it happened fifty years ago.”
A mocking bird landed on the power lines across the street bobbing its head and squawking animatedly as if it were somehow displeased at something.
“Sure I was prejudiced against blacks; my view was a popular one at the time. I looked up the definition of the word one time. The book said: ‘an opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge’. I reckon that’s about right. I took my queue from my parents. Before I had even seen a black I knew the word ‘nigger.’ just like most kids I wanted to see my parents smile. They say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks and that may be true but an old man can still learn a thing or two. I was at the river fishing awhile back and your cousin Mitch was with me… You know me and your daddy caught so many catfish out of that river one time- he was just a boy then- that we had to stop and rest twice before we could haul the fish to the road. I offered to help your dad carry that stringer but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was proud of those fish and wanted to carry them on his own. Some of them catfish were so big it was like butchering a hog when we cleaned them.”
Poppa was quiet for a while. He took a cake of chewing tobacco from the pocket of his overalls cut a piece with his folding knife and then returned both knife and tobacco to his pockets. He worked the chew into his cheek. “Oh yeah,” he said, “It was sunny and all so me and Mitch went fishing. We wasn’t there long before three black boys came up, sat beside us, and started fishing. Of course I was disgusted by that turn of events. I felt like our fishing area had been violated. I mumbled to Mitch darkly about blacks not knowing their place-too many blacks-blacks catching all the fish. Thank goodness Mitch didn’t understand what I was talking about. If I remember right I was scowling something fierce too. I couldn’t see past the color of their skin to the people beneath. I couldn’t see that they were just kids. The smallest of the boys came over to me (which I guess was a feat of courage the way I was looking at them) and spoke to me.
“He said ‘Sir, can you help me fix this spinner?’
“I looked at the boy incredulously. I asked to see it, feeling a little ashamed of myself. I looked at the reel and saw that a gear was bent. It wasn’t going to work right no matter what I did. So I said, ‘Sorry son, I’m afraid you’ll have to put this reel to bed because its plum wore out.’
“‘Thank you anyway Mister’ he said, and I siad, ‘Sure.’
“The oldest of the kids was looking at me critically. I felt he understood what I was thinking all too well. But I shrugged off the brief feeling of shame reeled my line in, checked my bait, and re-cast. I noticed then that Mitch wasn’t sitting beside me but I figured he had ducked into the trees to take a leak. Then I heard a yell and looked around just in time to see the mud bank crumble beneath the boys feet dumping him into the water. The river is wide and deep at that spot so, when I saw the boy fall fear grabbed my heart like a fist and started squeezing. It’s a wonder I didn’t have a heart attack and die right there. Your cousin was thrashing at the water and it was clear he couldn’t swim. Helplessly I watched the current pull him right under. Then, before I could even get on my feet, the oldest one of those boys (Sarge is his name-how about that?) jumped in the river. That boy shot across the water like he was swimming in the damn Olympics. He dove under and pulled Mitch back up. Mitch was in a panic and kept trying to climb the other boy to get free of the water and it was a job of work but, finally the boy got Mitch to the bank. If it hadn’t been for that young man your cousin wouldn’t be around anymore.”
The old man fell silent for a while, then said, “It takes a lot to change an old man’s ideas but that did the trick. Even an old fool like me can learn a new trick or two.”
Paul Peppers is a diesel mechanic in Cartersville Georgia. He has an Associate of Applied Science Degree from Coosa Vally Technical college and is fifty-three years old.