During a recent drive along country roads in South Georgia I reminisced about a tradition during my childhood that might have faded. Before the roads were paved there were fewer visitors at homes along the dusty trails, but at each home there was something to quench the thirst or sooth the palate of a traveler who just might need a respite.
And then I remembered such a visit.
Does a James Edward Live Here?
When our Boy Scout master at St. Timothy AME Church moved to another city, approximately 10 boys wondered if it also meant the dissolution of our troop. Seeing the leadership void, my brother Curtis stepped forward. He was the oldest scout among us, and felt duty-bound to maintain our active status. His first self – imposed command was to learn more about scouting and how to enhance the experience of his troops. He found guidance in the pages of the Boy Scout Handbook.
Our new scout master instinctively understood that leadership by example tends to generate respect and confidence among subordinates, so his announcement that he would lead us on a 15 mile round trip hike drew instant applause. He gave us specific instructions and some general suggestions for making our trek a safe and enjoyable experience. Curtis told us to pack a lunch, water, our Boy Scout knife, first aid kit, and whistle. He also suggested we refrain from nibbling on our food until the lunch break, and to ration our water to last the entire journey.
At the appointed hour we left the church and proceeded along our predetermined route over the paved highway, along country roads, including one near the bank of a large pond, and through winding paths at the edge of cotton and tobacco fields. The weather was perfect for such an outing. We sang songs, engaged in other group acts of fellowship, and generally seemed to enjoy the smells and ambiance of the countryside. As I walked I also nibbled, sipped from my canteen, nibbled, daydreamed, and sipped from my canteen. My food and water was almost consumed before the break.
We crossed the railroad tracks which stretched like two long snakes through a forest of Georgia Pines, Cypress, and Live Oaks. A farm house was in our path at a distance of approximately one-half mile. I started to deliberately lag behind, not so far as to cause alarm, but enough to plan and execute a maneuver to replenish my water. Scouts in the front column passed the house almost without a glance. At the moment of my choosing I darted into the yard and went directly to the door and knocked very hard and rapidly. There was no response, so I gave myself permission to use the pump which stood at the edge of the porch. After filing my canteen and a few more gulps to quench my thirst, I prepared to leave. Upon descending the steps, I caught a glimpse of the kitchen table. During my childhood one could expect to find, in almost every home, a plate of something to eat on the table covered by cheesecloth or a large fancy napkin made from the scraps of a feed sack. There was such a covered container in my sight. I expanded my liberties by entering the kitchen with alacrity and uncovered the container. The residents of this home were observing the tradition. I took two biscuits and a piece of cake. But, before leaving I also took a piece of paper from my knapsack and wrote a note: “My name is James Edward Alexander. I live at 1341 West Hill Avenue. I took 2 biscuits and a piece cake and some water. Thank you.”
I raced from the yard and went immediately into the brush. Then, I calmly and slowly emerged as though I had just finished an urgent, unannounced toilet break. Within a mile we stopped for lunch. I sat some distance from Curtis. Both of our lunches had been prepared by our mother Catherine. His lunch did not include biscuits and cake.
Approximately three weeks later Catherine and I played out another familiar scene in our back yard. Almost every day was wash day. She was bending over the large galvanized tin tub scrubbing shirts and sheets on the metal washboard. I was maintaining the fire under the big black wash pot. Suddenly, we had a visitor. A white man emerged from a much traveled and worn Ford truck, approached us and asked a question. “Does a James Edward live here?” My mother, conditioned and cautioned by the prevailing social order in the mid 1940’s, stiffened her body as she wondered the reason for his inquiry. Sensing her discomfort, he hastened to assure her, “He ain’t in no trouble,” and promptly elucidated. “Some time back, somebody went into our kitchen and took some biscuits and a piece of cake.” At that moment I spoke. “I’m James Edward Alexander, sir.” He looked at me and said, “So you’re the one who left us the note. Well boy, I appreciate that, and I’m here to tell you that the way you did it makes it alright.” He turned and prepared to leave.
Before departing the man waved to my mother and complimented, “Ya done a good job of raising him. The boy musta been kinda hungry that day.” Over the noise of the engine I heard his final words, “Take care of yourself, James Edward Alexander.”
Then I told Catherine what happened that day. She didn’t speak. She just stared at me for a very long time. We never again discussed that incident or shared that day with anyone else.