This is the third promised offering about some men who, during my childhood, helped to shape my notions of self-sufficiency, deep affection, spiritual dedication and humility. Both stories appeared separately in my book, I Wish You Had Been There, but are combined here because of the relationships of time, location and personalities.
He Sang from the Heart
Mister Will Hamp was another man in my childhood who helped me appreciate that some persons express themselves, literally, by a different tune.
His lady was Miss Louise, whose attractive green eyes sparkled and danced as much as her hips swayed when she balanced a basket of clothes on her head and walked along the unpaved Savannah Avenue.
Mister Will appeared to me as a big, solid man, weighing more than 200 pounds. Almost anything heavier than my childhood weight was noticeable, but adding to his appearance were the baggy denim overalls he wore, always with one strap unfastened and flopping down his back. His other companion was the large pipe with the curved stem and the bowl filled with Prince Albert smoking tobacco.
On Saturday, this weekend troubadour fastened the strap on his guitar over his shoulder and toured the neighborhood, creating sounds and new lyrics to describe whatever he perceived at the time. His perceptions were often influenced by another lady — “sweet lucy” — (moonshine). Sometimes, his songs were tuneful. But being in tune was not nearly as important as his poetry and his manner. He had the knack for singing without removing his pipe, which always stayed lit, and his speech was not slurred, even as slobber curled from his lips downward along the crooked stem and fell at his feet.
My next door neighbor was Miss Darnella. Our homes were separated by a field where she often planted corn and sweet potatoes. Miss Darnella had a sister who occasionally came to visit. Her name was Johnnie Mae. One week Mister Will sang a song that still rings clearly to me. He stood in that field and lyrically spoke to Miss Darnella and asked her a question:
How is Johnnie Mae
When she comes to visit you
I hope she comes to stay.
Oooooh, oooooh, Darnella, how is Johnnie Mae.”
I had no knowledge or understanding of his interest in Johnnie Mae, but she did eventually come to stay — in a house she built — in that field — where he hoped she would come to stay.
Mister Ben Went for a Walk
When Mister Ben Thomas walked down the street or strolled about his back yard his gait was relaxed, yet determined, purposeful and dignified. My memories of him are locked in that bank of treasures of worthwhile yesterdays.
In almost every crowd, Ben Thomas would have been the least remembered when the assembly adjourned, unless he was your neighbor. His was not a life of opulence, letters, frills, or public notoriety. He was simply a hardworking, honest, Christian, gentle man. I never saw him angry, nor did I ever hear him speak an unkind word about anyone.
Mister Ben’s skin was as black as coal, and he measured approximately five feet –five inches, and I thought his dexterity with an axe rivaled the mythical Paul Bunyan. Each morning the echo of his cutting tool seemed to split the Eastern sky and free the sun from an orbit to brighten our morning. He chopped enough wood to place on the scaffold next to the bedroom window, so that his wife, Miss Darnella, could just open the window and fuel was at her fingertips. Then Mister Ben took his lunch pail and waited for his ride into the forest where he continued to harvest lumber for an expanding city.
He had been sexton at St. Timothy A.M.E Church longer than anyone could remember. There, he performed whatever chores were necessary to make his tabernacle worthy of God’s presence. During the services he sat in the “amen corner”, where the minister often invited one of the brothers to give a prayer of thanks and to ask for God’s continuing grace. Most of the men offered relatively short prayers which reflected their feelings at that time. But, not Mister Ben. When he knelt to talk with God, it was an extended conversation. He told God everything. Because he was less literate than his brothers, he had listened to their offerings and memorized those words and phrases he could pronounce, then when he restructured them into his own humble invocation he never deviated, for fear of unintentionally saying something less laudatory to his master.
My neighbor’s life was characterized by repetition. Rituals gave him structure. On Saturday he walked downtown to shop. He would pass our home wearing starched overalls. A clean white handkerchief hung out of his rear pocket. That was his style.
Then, one Saturday he took a special stroll. My mother recalled, “I saw him walk past the house just as he did every Saturday. I was particularly struck by his appearance that day, because his overalls seemed so white. I yelled, ‘Hey brother Ben, you’re looking good today.’ He waved and kept on walking.” She hesitated, then added, “I never waved to my friend again.”
Mister Ben Thomas went for a walk. He never came back. All attempts to locate him proved fruitless. Maybe he just kept on walking far away to another amen corner. Maybe he finally walked home – to heaven.