[A version of this story appears in my first book, Half Way Home From Kinderlou. I edited it for presentation again now.]
He Knew Everything About Everything
My grandfather knew everything about everything. I called him Papa. His knowledge seemed to flow so smoothly and with confidence from his experiences and from a vast library of elementary, intermediate, and advanced books and publications that oriented him to an enlightened appreciation of things of this world, and even greater reverence for the source of all knowledge — the Almighty. Papa not only encouraged me to use his library, he often gave me reading assignments from a book he selected.
One very hot day in my seventh or eighth year, Papa and I sat on the front porch of his log cabin home located on his farm outside Valdosta. He suddenly motioned for me to get my straw hat and suggested we take a walk. His tone seemed urgent. We had walked together in the fields through rows of peas, squash, and watermelon, and had lounged in the shade of cypress, oaks, and pine trees, but these outings seldom began during the hottest part of day. But then, surely a man who knows everything about everything has a good reason for everything. I followed without questions about our destination or purpose.
We walked along a path near the pond, which was home for at least two alligators. This also was the route to one of Mama’s favorite fishing spots, so I thought we were going to retrieve poles that might have been baited earlier. We passed the spot without the slightest observance.
Finally, my grandfather stopped under a large oak tree. As he stood there, both living things looked so permanently fixed in this world. I thought it was considerate of him to select a tree with, so many strong limbs and branches covered with leaves and moss, because it was an ideal shaded rest stop. But the tree had more significance.
Papa got my attention by pronouncing my name as only he was authorized to do. I also sensed that he used the pronunciation to signal an exclusive relationship between us. “James Eddard, a man should know that which he calls his own. He should know it, so he can use it to the fullest, and when the time comes when he can no longer use it, he should be able to identify what he passes to the next owners.” My African Methodist Episcopal minister grandfather was delivering a sermon to an audience of one with the same conviction that he shared with the multitude on Sunday. He continued, “Young man, you have demonstrated an ability to remember things — not all of them becoming of a Christian I might add — so now your grandfather wants you to remember this tree. This is the Alexander property line. Take a good look and remember it.” I was pleased that he considered me special enough to trust that I would remember the boundary of something he owned.
After we had located the second marker to his property, Papa and I walked along another trail that afforded access to the Withlacoochee River. The water flowed gently, and pieces of moss that had dislodged from a tree upstream floated to another home. Pretty soon our stroll brought us near Blue Springs, a small resort located on U.S. Highway 84, west of Valdosta. We climbed a slight hill and had a beautiful view of the huge swimming pool. Papa sat beside another tree and took his handkerchief and mopped his thick mustache, brow, and bald head. My grandfather seemed tired. His sweaty features confirmed that he needed a rest. I looked at the pool, which was filled with bathers who seemed to be having so much fun, splashing each other with water, racing, diving, and creating one big scene of merriment. Suddenly, I had a fantastic idea. “Papa, why don’t we go down there to Blue Springs, and you can swim a little and cool off.” My youthful sense of logic had momentarily lost track of the prevailing social reality. Papa’s eyes shocked me back to the real world in which I was developing. His sharp focus told me he appreciated my concern, but then he reminded me, “James Eddard, you must not forget that Blue Springs is for the white folks only. Maybe, just maybe, one of these days, please dear Lord, your sons and daughters can go there too — if they want to.” He wiped his face again. This time he seemed to mop his eyes a little longer. Then he ordered, “Let’s move on, young man.”
We walked a few yards in silence. As I turned to get one last look at the pool, I asked, “Papa, did those white folks come from out of town?” I reasoned they must be visitors, for they were all men and too numerous to be Papa’s white neighbors, who were busy tending their farms. My granddaddy looked at me and said, “Yes, James Eddard, they came from another place, far, far away. Those are German prisoners of war.” Then I saw sadness and what appeared to be frustration, a sight I had never seen in his face. The German prisoners were encamped at nearby Moody Field military base, and were hired by local farmers to harvest crops and clear new ground for planting. Those we saw at Blue Springs were on their midday “recreation break.” Shortly thereafter we found the other property markers, but I couldn’t forget how Papa looked and reacted when he talked about the Germans.
Long after we returned home, I decided to ask him one last question about our earlier observations. “Papa, if those white folks we saw today in the pool were Germans, and if the Germans are our enemies, then how come the enemy can swim in the pool and we colored Americans can’t?” He didn’t answer; he just looked at me, but he didn’t answer. I had asked a question that couldn’t be rationally answered, not even by a man who I thought knew everything about everything.