To Be A Man

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Letter Number Four:

My Dear Grandson,

It is a beautiful day this morning. I hope that it is equally beautiful where you are, too. Now, I ain’t got no window in this here hospital, but I know it’s pretty out ‘cause I heard some of the nurses talking ‘bout it. I can just imagine what it’s like out, and sometimes imagining is just as good. Sometimes it has to be just as good.

I thought a few minutes ago about another day, long ago, about this time of year. It was a beautiful day, too, just full of sunshine and clean air, and lots of shadows in the woods. I’d like to tell you about that day, ‘cause I think it will give you a good idea for just what kind of special uncle, well, great uncle, you got there in Uncle Roose. I had gotten myself into a real fix that day, and I tell you I was in for…well, let me just tell you what happened.

As I said, it was long ago. I was just a youngster, probably in 7th grade, ‘cause I had just a year left of school after it happened. Your great uncle Roose, my brother, was a year behind me, and we’d walk to school together ‘bout every day, him and me. Sometimes, some other boys would join us on the way, including Bud Pelter, my best friend, but always Roose and me. I don’t remember ever walking to school without him.

I had done something that particular morning that I ain’t proud of, and it almost got me into a whole lot of trouble. A whole lot! My daddy had this old knife from the Civil War, the Confederate side, that is. Daddy said he wouldn’t have wanted a Yankee knife. Ain’t that he disagreed with them about slavery or anything like that, just that he disagreed with them about everything else, some outsiders coming ‘round telling us what we could and couldn’t do, as a … well, never you mind. That kinda talk is better done in person, if at all.

He had this old knife, like I said, that was from the war. He had gotten it from his uncle, a man by the name of Pate. Uncle Pate… great uncle to me, like Uncle Roose is to you. Now, I never met Uncle Pate, but there used to be a picture of him and his old wife hung up on the wall over the mantle, along with a whole bunch of other kinfolk. I didn’t know who all of ‘em were, but my mother sure could tell you. She could rattle on for longer than you wanted about the folks in them pictures. You better have most of an afternoon if you was to ask her a question ‘bout one of ‘em, ‘cause once she got started, there weren’t going nowhere till she run outta details. And that took a while.

Anyway, this knife was handed down from Uncle Pate to my daddy. I remember my daddy telling me how it had been stuck into some soldier on the north side during a particular battle. He showed me this nick on it, along the edge of it, where the feller that done the sticking had notched it, showing how far he’d stuck it in…. almost to the hilt!

I remember my daddy telling me that, and me being entranced by it, thinking ‘bout a young man not much older than myself – maybe even ‘bout my age! – sticking that knife into another man to kill him. I went to school the next day and told another boy the story, but I dressed it up a little and said that it was stuck into Ulysses S. Grant himself. That boy just looked at me and said, “Heck, it ain’t!” I shoulda stopped with the truth, ‘cause he didn’t believe me ‘bout none of it once I took it that far. So, I said I would show him and prove it. ‘Course I couldn’t prove who it had stuck, but I could at least show that the knife was real.

My daddy kept that knife up in his closet, on a shelf behind a box of shotgun shells. I knew right where it was, but I couldn’t just take it without sneaking around, ‘cause my daddy never woulda let me take it to school. Not that it was a knife… that was okay back then. In fact, it was expected for a boy to have a good knife on him, but I couldn’t take it ‘cause of its history. I had to sneak up in my daddy’s closet and take it without him knowing it, and that’s what I did. I was gonna put it back that same evening ‘fore he got home from work. Let me tell you, he woulda whooped me good had he caught me.

So that next morning we was walking to school, and I had that old knife tucked away in my books. The usual passel of boys showed up as we walked along. Tom joined us about a quarter mile in. Then Bud. Then J. Dean caterwauled in a few paces on. You know, I’m not sure caterwauled is the right word I want. I’ll have to ask a nurse for a dictionary. It sure sounds right to me, though, for the way he walked, kinda ambling along, like he was reaching for something every step he took. Caterwauled… I’ll just leave it for now.

They was good boys, every one of them, and we was having the usual good time we had every morning walking to school, throwing sticks at trees and just generally being boys. Then, just as we was coming out of the woods into Old Miller’s pasture, this other boy shows up. We was about to hop over the gate to cut across the pasture, same thing we did every morning, when we hear, “Hold on, fellas! Wait for me!” and who should be coming along but Baylor Simms.

Now, I knew Baylor Simms a little, more from hearsay than from actually being around him. Roose knew him too, and I heard Roose kinda sigh when he realized who it was. But I didn’t think too much of it at first.

Well, we went along, through the pasture, and we was about to go over Cross Creek there on the far side. There’s an old homemade bridge there, least ways there used to be. I doubt it’s still there, but you might look when you get to be older. I know a lot of the roads have changed since then, either gone or been made wider, but that creek ain’t gone nowhere, so that bridge might be there, or what’s left of it. Maybe someone rebuilt it later, I don’t know, but you go look sometime for yourself when you get to be a big boy, and let me know.

So we was about to cross over the creek. The water ain’t never been very high there, but we used the bridge so we wouldn’t get our shoes wet before school. On the way back home we’d splash right through it, but not on the way to school. Anyway, my plan was to find that boy who didn’t believe me and show him the knife after school. But as we crossed over that bridge, for some reason I just got this powerful urge to show it off right then and there to Bud.

So I pull that knife out of my book bag and hold it up for Bud to see. I just knew my daddy would kill me if he knew I had taken it. Roose knew it too, and didn’t approve of me doing it, but he kept quiet. Well, holding that knife out and showing it to the fellas soon turned into passing it around for each one of them to hold and look at closer. Of course, each boy was just eaten up inside that it wasn’t one of their daddy’s knives, which I’m ashamed to say didn’t make me feel too bad. So the knife goes around, and I warned them not to drop it or throw it on the ground.

Well, Bud gives me a big backhand slap on the shoulder and smiles real big and nods his head. I know he just loved seeing that knife, and I was glad I had brought it. But then it gets to Baylor Simms, and he looks at it, and then keeps looking at it. Now, he was a big old boy, and I started getting a little nervous that he wasn’t gonna give it back. Me being the oldest, besides Baylor, meant that I would have to be the one to get it back. It weren’t no call to let one of the younger boys handle my business.

I waited a few more uncomfortable minutes as we walked along. We usually slowed down the closer we got to school. We was just about to get into view of the schoolhouse, and I knew old Mr. Sutter would be waiting outside for all the kids to get there. So, when I couldn’t wait no longer, I tapped Baylor on the shoulder and held out my hand and said, “Here.”

There comes a certain time in your life, little man, when you realize a Big Moment has arrived. Some moments are bigger than others, but you’ll know a Big Moment when you see it. Some sort of action is required of you, and it always takes you by surprise. You’ll be going along and all of a sudden someone says or does something and you gotta do something back, or say something back, or the moment’s lost, and then you lose. This was such a moment.

When I says, “Here,” old Baylor don’t do nothing but just keep walking and looking at my knife like he ain’t gonna give it back.

So I tap him again and say, “Come on, Baylor, give it back!” But I could feel it deep inside that I had already lost, and I was growing sick about it pretty fast.

We were just about to come into full view of the schoolhouse. In fact, I could already hear some kids running around and hollering. I had only a couple of seconds to act, but I hesitated. I failed my Big Moment. I wanted to jump him, and I knew I had good company to help if things went bad, and that was okay as long as I was the first to jump, as long as I was the one to take the initiative, so to speak. But that knife was sharp and Baylor was holding it clear around in front of him, away from me.

By the time I started to gather up a Plan B, he takes off running. Running right toward the schoolhouse with the knife on him. He throws it into his own book bag and turns his head back and yells, “It’s mine now, you blankety-blank.” I could tell you the real words he yelled when he said that, but I ain’t gonna put nothing like that in this here letter. It was just the meanest thing I had ever heard, and there weren’t no call for it.

I started running after him, but here comes Mr. Sutter out the door, smiling and looking our way. I slowed my pace, my conundrum just kinda settling real heavy on me right there. I couldn’t let Mr. Sutter find out about the knife, or he would take it and find out from our daddies whose it really was. That would mean the end of me. Maybe not really the end of me, but I might wish for it for a while. My daddy didn’t take to being fooled or disobeyed or having something put over on him, especially by one of his own.

So I kinda caterwauled – to use that word again – on into the schoolhouse, and I couldn’t take my eyes off Baylor. I wanted to kill him. I remember wishing I was bigger so I could follow him after school and jump him and get it back. As it was, I didn’t know if I had it in me to take it back all by myself. So instead I just stared holes through him. I was all heated up inside the whole morning. I finally had to tell myself to just wait toward the end of the day and then figure it out, cause I couldn’t pay no attention to anything else. I didn’t like that feeling at all. It’s horrible to be eaten up inside. Just horrible.

Bud and J. Dean and Tom, and especially Roose, they knew I was going through it, and I hated that they knew. It felt like my very manliness was being tested by this scoundrel, even though I was still just a boy. I had aims on being a man, and like I said, I was the oldest of the group and that kinda doubled it all down for me.

So when the day is almost over, Mr. Sutter comes over to me and says to me real quiet that he wants me to stay after a minute and talk to him. Well, you can imagine my distress over that! Baylor was gonna get away with my daddy’s knife, and I would never get it back. What could I do? “No, Mr. Sutter, I can’t stay,” wasn’t so easy to say to a teacher back in them days. My agitation heated all up again as I sat there. Right when our studies was done, all the kids went tearing out of there, all of them except Baylor! He kinda just sauntered by, glanced over at me and threw his head back just a bit, and smirked. I just steamed!

After a few eternal minutes, Mr. Sutter comes over and sits himself down in the desk next to me. He says, “Mr. Hollis, I heard some disturbing things today about you from one of our other students.”

I remember looking up at him, totally caught off guard. I swallowed hard. “You did? I ain’t done nothing, Mr. Sutter, I swear!… I mean, I promise!” To swear was off limits in those days, let me tell you. Turns out, Baylor Simms himself had told Mr. Sutter some lie about me during lunchtime when I was outside, just to get me to stay after so’s he could get his head start back home before I could jump him!

I figured ol’ Baylor’d be peeking through the window right then, seeing what I was getting from Mr. Sutter. Then I figured maybe he’d be halfway home, considering himself the proud new owner of my daddy’s genuine Confederate Civil War knife! I just couldn’t take it, but I had to. Wasn’t no getting around hearing the lecture.

“I was informed this morning that you have been cheating on some of your work, BoDean. Is this true?”

Well, I wasn’t expecting that! Mr. Sutter’s eyes ‘bout drilled holes through me, I tell you. I summoned up some courage inside, the kind you don’t usually get till you’re older, as far as talking to adults goes anyway… I summoned up that courage and made myself look him right back in the eyes and I says, “Been tempted to, Mr. Sutter. Powerfully tempted to, sometimes,” (I figured weren’t no use just coming out with an outright denial ‘cause that would just drag things out, you know). “In fact, I’ve about had to grab the sides of my chair to not look sometimes, Mr. Sutter, and I’m sorry for it, too.”

Mr. Sutter kinda let his shoulders sag down and grabbed the point of his chin with one hand and rested that arm on the other underneath it. He looked up above me at the wall, like he was considering what I was saying, which is just what I wanted him to do.

“Hmmmm,” is all he says.

“Yes sir,” I go on. “But I been holding back real good, sir. I ain’t…. err… haven’t…. I haven’t looked because I remembered that verse in the Bible you read to us about the secret things we do being shouted from the rooftops someday, and I really don’t want nothing but good things shouted about me… ever!”

I figured this was true, at least as far as Mr. Sutter needed to know. I didn’t want nothing bad shouted about me, that was true. And, besides, I hadn’t cheated and I hadn’t looked over at someone else’s work. Least not that Baylor woulda known.

I could see Mr. Sutter slumping a little more, and I figured rightly that I was gonna get out of this. But my mind raced to a picture of Baylor climbing over the last fence on the way back to his place, my daddy’s knife sticking out of his pocket, and I wanted to just squirm!

Mr. Sutter said nothing, his eyes back on me, but not drilling so much no more.

“Do you s’pose that whoever said that maybe just thought I was looking around, maybe?” I asked. I knew Mr. Sutter was a soft-hearted soul, and I figured right then was the time to go for broke.

“Maybe if I sat up front starting tomorrow…” I let my voice fall away just a little for effect. “ I wouldn’t be so tempted…” Then I pitched it right in real hard, looking up like I just thought of it, “And I could pay better attention that way too, being up front!!” Then I let it fall back down like I didn’t quite know if I had it in me to do well… “I’m willing to try, I am.” I let my breath out like I was the most to-be-pitied creature in the county. I had played my hand, and a winner it was.

“Agreed, BoDean. Agreed. I think you are a most responsible young man, and I gain great satisfaction hearing you speak with such humility and determination. I will see you tomorrow morning, up front, with new vigor and spunk!”

With that he rose up, and I let out a genuine, “Thank you, Mr. Sutter!” I hesitated like I wasn’t too all fired up to get out of there, which I really was, but I couldn’t let on that I was. As soon as my moment of hesitation was sufficiently played out to my liking, I gathered up my books and walked contritely back to the door, turned around, and went for the final act.

“Mr. Sutter?”

“Yes, BoDean?”

“I think there’s gonna be a lot of shouting good things about you someday, and I might be shouting the loudest.” I smiled real big, and not just for effect. I was laying it on, true, but once I started saying it, it felt good.

So then I go out the door, feeling a little bad about laying it on, but underneath all that, feeling pretty good, ‘cause I did have good intentions. I come out and turn left to go up toward the woods and home, when who do I see standing there but Roose. And he’s got a big old smile on his face!

My first thought was maybe he had been hiding under the window and heard my capitulations to Mr. Sutter, and was gonna make no end of fun of me. But no sooner had I formed that thought than he reaches back and pulls Daddy’s knife out from behind his back, his grin just getting that much bigger when I seen it.

So I start grinning back at him, thinking the whole weight of the world been lifted up off of me. I says to him, “Roose, please tell me that is the same knife I took outta Daddy’s closet this morning.” And he says, “It is.” And I says, “But how did you get it back from Baylor?” and no sooner had I finished that question than he lifts up his other hand and shooshes me with his forefinger, closing his eyes and moving his head back and forth.

He says, “Don’t matter,” and then he hands that knife back to me, handle first, just like you’re s’posed to. He couldn’t have been acting nicer to me had I been a king.

I was so happy I wanted to hug him. I took that knife and looked it over and there wasn’t a thing wrong with it. We walked on home, and I hid the knife under my jacket so I could sneak it back up to Daddy’s room after we got there.

I woulda done anything for Roose right then. I half expected him to tell me I had to do his chores for him, or do his homework for him, or something, but he never said nothing more about it. So, I didn’t neither. Come to think of it, I don’t even know that I told him thank you, which ain’t too kindly of me. I should have said it, but the fact I didn’t even think to say it is what’s most disturbing to me now.

Anyway, the next day when we get to school, Baylor was already there, and he had the biggest shiner you ever seen, right on his left eye. That’s when I knew for sure. My little brother had done taken out my business on a boy bigger and older than himself. Baylor lied to everyone about where he got that black eye. He said a pony kicked him, but I knew better. I couldn’t ask for a better brother than Roose, and you couldn’t ask for a better great uncle.

So that’s the story of the knife. I got a lot more stories about Roose, but I’ll save ‘em for later letters. Right now, I’m gonna rest a little and think about the sunshine outside, and the fresh air. I hope your mama takes you out today to enjoy it. I’ll think about that too.

Love,

Granddaddy Hollis

 – from the novel, Gentle Sun 

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