The Community Compact
During my childhood in Valdosta in the 1930s, there was a community compact that conferred parental surrogacy to every adult to protect the safety and welfare of every child. It also authorized every adult who wore a belt or who could handle a switch to issue corporal punishment to any child to discourage bad behavior or to preserve community order. On a few occasions I received both the benefits and the burdens of that agreement.
One day as I walked from school my unsteadiness was observed by Miss Hightower, a wash-woman. She quickly laid aside her metal washboard, called me to her backyard and cradled my shaking body in her arms. She did not have a thermometer, so she pressed my forehead next to her cheek and accurately told me, “Baby, you got a little fever.” She then got a sheet and pillow from inside and made me a pallet on the back porch, so that she could do her work near the tin tubs and big black steel wash pot, while assuming her adult responsibility to a child. She summoned and asked another child to go and tell my mother where I was being taken care of. Within 30 minutes my mother arrived. She also brought with her a jar of preserved blackberries. The ladies briefly chatted, hugged and said goodbye, having reaffirmed the soundness of the community understanding.
But on more than a few occasions, especially between the ages of six and nine, my conduct just seemed to come under close scrutiny, and I was subjected to other provisions of the compact. Two persons are especially remembered.
Miss Ada was a gentle lady. She walked a lot around the neighborhood, and she always seemed to be in proper position to observe my improper behavior. When she lectured a child on bad manners, she managed to relate the infraction to something that is commanded in the scripture, always invoking the observation, “God don’t like ugly.” She had no doubt that she was God’s proxy on earth to punish indiscretion. But what distinguished Miss Ada’s lectures was the manner of her speech. Miss Ada dipped snuff and chewed tobacco, sometimes at the same time. That presented another “pre-whipping” dilemma. If she decided to lob a salvo of spit into the receptacle, you soon learned that tobacco and snuff juices are delivered at different velocities. Quickness and dexterity determined my alignment when she puckered for a volley. Furthermore, and obviously, it affected the timbre of her speech. I never expected to hear the sounds of vowels, and the only consonant I could distinguish was “S”—for switch. Every other word just seemed to drip and slip into incoherence. But, even at seven years old I felt entitled to fully understand why I was being punished. So I blurted out, “Miss Ada, how do expect me to hear what you say when you’re chewing tobacco and dipping snuff?” Then I clearly heard and felt the thud on my butt and the words, “Twern yo behin round.”
When a lady punished a child, the terms of the compact were highly ritualized. She often wrote a note to the parents. After my whipping I was commanded to stand in a certain spot. There might have been some tolerance for movement, at least two feet from the assigned spot, but even though my legs were stinging from that switching, I was more concerned about being upwind or downwind from Miss Ada’s spittoon. And, the ladies always seemed unable to find pencil or piece of paper to write the note. I very quickly figured out that this delay tactic was intended to extend my discomfort. When Miss Ada was finally ready to write, it always tickled me to see her take the pencil and stick the lead on her tongue before writing. I just couldn’t resist laughing. Wrong move. “Whawsh so funny?” I clearly heard that, and my only answer was the truth. Yet, even though my parents always urged me to tell the truth, I exercised discretion and offered something plausible, I think.
Finally, Miss Ada finished writing what seemed to be a thesis. The next step was clearly intended to debase my character throughout the neighborhood. The note rivaled the size of Hester Prynne’s scarlet A. And the ladies always used a straight pin to attach it to your shirt. No matter how still you stood in obedience, their nimble fingers just seemed to stick you at least twice. If you flinched, it was your fault that they had to start over.
Miss Ada also had nice handwriting, but I didn’t even read the note. I just took it home and delivered it to Mama —who had another switch.
Mr. Ike was a cautious man. He wore suspenders and a belt, both made of leather. He also was an original signer of the community compact.
Men seemed to be more tolerant of little boys’ miscues, probably since men were witnessing a repeat of their performance by the next generation. But when they could not dismiss the errant behavior, they did what was necessary.
I was simply minding my own business as I walked down the railroad track, balancing myself on the single rail — and peeing on the track to mark my next footprint. I heard Mr. Ike’s booming voice, as he prepared to slip the belt from loops, fully confident of his suspenders as backup. “Boy what’s wrong with you; ain’t cha got no manners? Put that thing away and come over here.” Of course, being startled and facing immediate punishment, as I attempted to “put that thing away,” I wet my pants.
Mr. Ike was a Deacon in the Evergreen Baptist Church. It was common neighborhood knowledge that, regardless of whatever music was played at the church, Mr. Ike frequently led the congregation in singing his favorite song which included the words “…don’t you want God’s bosom to be your pillow …” As I approached him I started to sing “…don’t you want God’s bosom to be your pillow.” Suddenly, a smile came to his face and he had an audience of one as he “started from the top” and blurted out lyrics which I didn’t know, but when he got to the magic words, I gave it my best, with gusto: “Don’t you want God’s bosom to be your pillow?” Actually, I was pleading for God’s bosom or any other padding to get me through the next few minutes.
Our duo must also have satisfied Mr. Ike that I had some redeeming virtues. He took a very long look at me and escorted me over to the three spigots designated for us under the big COLORED sign at the city’s central water pumping station. He told me to close my eyes and he splashed water over the front of my clothes. He smiled again as he observed, “Now, anybody who sees you won’t know what’s water and what’s pee. They’ll think you just had a wet accident. Get on home, and you better not do that again.”
Mr. Ike headed in another direction singing his favorite song. I headed home singing something, but “Amazing Grace” would have been appropriate, because “…a wretch like me…” had just been saved.