"If Wash O'Hanley didn't cover it, it probably wasn't that important anyway."

Monday, July 4, 2011

Memories of 4th of July's Past

Tomorrow is July 4th and all Americans, regardless of race, religion or political background will take the time to reflect on that which makes America the greatest country in the world. As we light the BBQs, play ball with the kids in the park and watch fireworks we will be reminded of the incredible feats countless Americans overcame to create this great nation, and the sacrifices so many have made to preserve it. The 4th of July holds a special place in the heart of every American and today I'd like to take a moment to talk about one 4th that has stood above all the rest in my mind.

It was the summer of '61 and my parents sent me down to McComb, Mississippi, to stay with my Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie was a salty fellow. He swore worse than a sailor and always seemed to be covered in grease of an unknown origin, but deep down he had a kind heart and truly cared for my cousins and I. I remember he'd pull out that handkerchief, blackened from the grease stains of a thousand days, and whip his hands with it as he spit yellow check-juice through his front teeth onto the dusty Mississippi ground. He liked people to think he was a tough customer, but deep down he was a big softy.

I don't think I ever told anybody but growing up I thought Uncle Charlie was the finest man that ever lived.

It was a hot and dry summer, much like the one we're in now. With the fire risk at dangerous levels that summer, fireworks displays were banned in the tri-county area and it looked like all hope was lost for having a real 4th of July. We moped around for days at the thought of missing out on that fireworks display and couldn't seem to muster up enough energy to go do the things boys our age normally did in the summer months like play in the creek or go for a bike ride. It seemed like all was lost.

Uncle Charlie, he noticed we just weren't the same and he knew why. When the 4th rolled around we could barely get ourselves out of bed. Mid-day rolled around and us boys were still in bed, trying to make it through the miserable day without getting up when Old Uncle Charlie came bursting through the bedroom door and shouted at us to "GET OUTTA BED, YA HEAR? GET OUTTA BED!" We whined and complained but he wasn't having any of it and soon the sheets were ripped off the beds and we had no choice but to get up and get dressed.

After a quick meal we were in his old Ford pickup heading down a dirt road through some farmland to a destination we didn't know. He pulled up in front of an old rundown shack in the middle of nowhere where some ancient-looking man in overalls sat rocking back and forth in a rocking chair cradling a shotgun in his lap as an equally lazy-looking smell hound sat with its head dropped over the top step like a sack of onions placed carelessly on the side of the porch. Uncle Charlie went up to the man and after a spell they went inside while us boys sat in the car and swatted at the flies and other various insect-life.

After about fifteen minutes Uncle Charlie comes out carrying a burlap sack full of oblong objects and tosses it in the bed, producing a hollow THUD. We didn't ask him what was in the bag because we all knew he wouldn't tell us, but based on that stupid grin he had on his face we knew we'd enjoy it. After a quick trip back into town that produced strawberry ice-cream cones for everyone we headed back home where Aunt Mavis had prepared BBQ chicken, corn on the cob, fresh lemonade and strawberry shortcakes.

These gestures were all nice but it still didn't make up for the fact there'd be no fireworks this 4th. The boys and I played grab-ass in the backyard as the sun retired over the horizon and made the sky a gradient of blues and purples and oranges. Uncle Charlie sat there at the picnic table the whole time chewing on a long piece of grass with that same stupid grin still painted across his face. Eventually rose from his spot with great effort and made his way to the pickup, pulling that burlap sack from the bed. We gathered 'round instantly and looking down into the void of that bag as he held it open for us. Fireworks. That's right, Fireworks.

He took us out into a field not too far and we shot them off. For about five minutes or so it felt like we were watching one of those big-city fireworks shows we'd seen before. When we ran out we weren't sad because we all appreciated what he'd done for us. We rode in that pickup with the same stupid grins plastered on our face as Old Uncle Charlie. It was truly the greatest 4th of July any of us would ever experience.

We all thanked him modestly, the way a young boy might, not getting too excited, but deep down I knew that day Uncle Charlie was the most generous man in the world and I was truly a lucky boy to have this man as my momma's brother.

What happened next is pretty vague and images and memories come in and out, sometimes without context or explanation. I hope I can remember it thoroughly...

As we come up on the road we normally turned on to get to Uncle Charlie's he keeps going straight and about ten or fifteen miles down the road he finally takes a turn onto this bumpy dirt path. None of us said anything until about six miles down the road when we'd probably been thrown into the air by the ruts and potholes in this road no fewer'n sixty times.

"Where we goin', Uncle Charlie?" I asked.
"You'll see" he replied with that stupid grin.

Something happened next, but I just can't quite remember it clearly.

We pull up at this gate in the woods and he gets out and opens it, drives us through, gets out again and closes it behind us, then gets back in and continues down the road. 'Bout maybe two more miles we come to this big clearing and all the sudden we see maybe fifty or sixty cars and two or three hundred people all sitting around on picnic blankets and what-not, all illuminated by candles and other lights. We get out and Charlie leads us down to an open spot and sits us down among the masses. We don't know what's going on but we all have a good feeling that we're about to see something we won't ever forget.

Why were we at this place? Why'd Charlie take us to this clearing? I can't remember any more. And where'd Charlie go? He must have headed off somewhere at some point when none of us were paying attention.

OH NO! It's all coming back to me!

Soon enough a great hush fell over the crowd. We look around, not quite sure what's going on. On the blanket next to us the teenage couple stop necking and start looking off toward the top of the hill on the edge of this clearing we're all sitting around. So we turned and watched the damnedest thing I ever saw, which at the time I had no explanation for, as a couple of hooded guys come out holding this black boy no older than 17. He's crying and has snot running down his nose looking all kinds of pitiful. So we look at each other and shrug cause we don't have the slightest idea what is going on, but we keep watching, hoping to find out. At this point the hooded guys put a noose around this boy's neck and make him stand on a log and then tighten the noose over a branch. The boy keeps crying and the hooded guy makes this proclamation that has vanished into my memory at this time and when he's done the whole crowd is hooting and shouting at this boy. Meanwhile my cousins and I still have no idea what's going on but we're hooting and shouting along just because we felt like that was the right thing to do in that situation. So once the hooting and shouting reaches a crescendo one of the hooded guys kicks the log out from under the boy and he falls a foot or so and then just hangs there by his neck. He keeps twitching and such, I learned later in life it was probably because they didn't drop him from high enough and he was slowly choking to death rather than instantly dying from having his neck broken. So as he's twitching and writhing around these hooded guys start dowsing him in what was presumably lighter fluid and then set this guy on fire in front of all of us and at this point everyone is shouting and cheering and such.

Oh God, they killed that boy! They hanged him and they set him on fire. And... and... more is coming back to me... Uncle Charlie was one of those hooded men.

My cousins and I didn't know what to feel or how to interpret what we'd just witnessed, but I think we all knew we now had a profound life experience that linked us all, no matter where life took us. We walked back to the truck in silence, waiting for us there was Uncle Charlie. We didn't speak at all on the way back to the house and a few days later my parents came and picked me up and took me home.

I never saw Uncle Charlie again. A few months later my mom said he went back to college, which I thought was odd considering his age and lack of high school education. She told us we'd see him again when he got his degree in 15-20 years, but about two years later he died when a fellow classmate shanked him in a History of 19th Century Irish Poetry class.

Wow, looking back at that as an adult, come to think of it, Uncle Charlie was a terrible person. Wow, I really misread him as a kid, didn't I? Geeze, this really puts a damper on this holiday for me.