Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Ball Hollow with my MaMau and Granddaddy. My aunt Kathy and uncle Roy lived "next door" -- a half mile down the road. My playmates were my sister, Lyndsey, and cousins. Our playgrounds were rolling hillsides and hay fields and pastures and barns. Being outside from sun up to sun down was our goal, and the dirtier we were when we came home, the more fun we'd had.
Granddaddy got up before dawn every morning, and MaMau made breakfast. During the week, he worked as a supervisor at the rock crusher. In the evenings he tended to his cows and on weekends he worked on the farm. My older cousins, both boys, worked with Grandddaddy on the weekends. Lyndsey and I, nor my younger cousin Brad, had to work, but we stayed busy. Probably a bit busier than anyone would have preferred. Other than my cousins and uncle, there was one other man who helped Granddaddy. His name was Herschel.
Herschel didn't drive, so Granddaddy would go get him right after breakfast. I remember at the time thinking Herschel must have been ancient, but then again, I thought my grandfather was ancient, too. Herschel was probably only a bit older than my grandfather, but his years had been harder than Granddaddy's. Granddaddy may have had to leave school after the 8th grade, fight in WWII in Germany and do manual labor his whole life, but Herschel was a black man born and raised in the South. More specifically, he lived in Pulaski, TN, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.
I don't know the details of Herschel's personal struggle. I was too young really to grasp what life must have been like for him, but here's what I remember about Herschel. I don't remember the chronology of these stories, but they were all when we were in grade school. I was two years older than Lyndsey and Brad, and I couldn't have been more than eight years old.
Herschel was a hard worker. He could dig post holes so deep, so fast, and he could toss bales of hay into the back of a truck as if they weighed nothing. He was always quiet, but he'd hum while he worked. He's also the only person to ever live who is more afraid of snakes than me. We thought Herschel hung the moon, and he's light up, smiling whenever we came running, yelling his name.
For my grandfather, everything had a place and was supposed to be just so. He kept the barn cleaner than some keep their house, and his garden never had any weeds -- although he couldn't plant in a straight row to save his life. His cows were well taken care of. But what I remember most when it comes to Granddaddy were his fences. He couldn't stand to have a fence sagging or in the case of the front yard, fading. Their house was halfway up a hill, and the front yard was the size of a football field. A three-plank fence went all the way around, and once a year, it got painted, always a brick red color.
Granddaddy would have his truck in the yard, and as they checked all the cross pieces and then painted them, they'd move the truck down the fence with them with all the tools, paint and cold drinking water. Now, Granddaddy didn't want us kids painting. He figured, probably correctly, that we'd have more paint on ourselves than the fence. But that didn't mean we weren't right there and into everything. We climbed all over the truck, inside and out, and finally, we wanted to see what the underside of it looked like -- while it was moving.
We knew to be careful, so as not to get run over, so we laid down in the very middle of the wheel base and stayed very still the next time Granddaddy got ready to move the truck. I can still remember what it looked like as the truck very slowly inched down the next section of fence, parts moving, mud everywhere. When our feet started to come out the back end, Herschel saw us, and yelled so loud that Granddaddy stalled out the truck. "Mr. Dude, them kids!!!" MaMau had been watching out the kitchen window, and ran out to the front yard just as Granddaddy and Herschel were pulling us feet first out from under the truck. They were shaking, and when we realized how much trouble we were in, we started shaking, too.
Granddaddy never laid a finger on us in our whole lives, and the maddest any of us ever saw him was when we'd worried or scared him. MaMau on the other hand was not above blistering our backsides, and here she was coming. Granddaddy was yelling half at us, half at God about how we could have been killed. Herschel just sat down shaking his head. Needless to say, that was the last we were allowed around them while they painted, and the last time any of us sat comfortably for the rest of the day. MaMau wouldn't let us out of her sight.
I remember another occasion when we were playing around the truck while they were digging post holes on the hill behind the house. It was a hot summer day, and Granddaddy was always telling us to be careful and watch where we played. Some nasty creatures come out in Tennessee hollows in summer. Out of no where, Herschel grabbed all three of us in his arms and tossed us tumbling into the back of the truck on top of tools and anything else that happened to be back there. We thought Herschel had lost his mind. Granddaddy heard us screaming, and turned as we all came up looking out of the truck bed to see Herschel grab a snake out of the grass and snap it like a whip, killing it with his bare hands.
Granddaddy made sure we were OK and then made Herschel sit down in the truck. He later told MaMau it was the whitest he'd ever seen a black man. Every bit of color drained out of Herschel's face and he nearly fainted when he realized he'd just grabbed a snake. We were so worried about Herschel and kept trying to check on him. Granddaddy took us all back to the house, and MaMau made us go inside. They looked at the snake and found it was a copperhead -- an incredibly poisonous and aggressive snake. It would have bitten us without provocation. We'd been playing three feet from it when Herschel grabbed us.
It wasn't until later that Granddaddy told us Herschel was fine and he'd only been scared to death because he was so afraid of snakes. If we'd thought Herschel was cool before he was something close to a god after that. We thanked him over and over, as did my grandparents. For Herschel's part, he just nodded and said he'd never let anything happened to them kids. He also wanted to go home. He'd had enough for one day.
Every afternoon when Granddaddy and the "men" came in for lunch, MaMau would fix Herschel a plate and take it to him on the back porch. She managed the cafeteria at one of the local schools, so she'd brought trays home for Herschel's lunch. Of course, we thought Herschel hung the moon, so we wanted to eat with him, so MaMau brought trays home for us, too. We'd sit on the back porch and eat, and when we were done, Herschel would pull out a pack of gum -- Wrigley's Spearmint -- and give us each a piece. It never failed; Herschel always had gum.
When it was cold out, Herschel would take the steps from the carport and go eat in the basement to stay warm. My grandparents' house had a wood furnace, and sitting next to it was so warm and had this lovely smell of burning wood. Occasionally, MaMau would run us out of the basement to give Herschel some peace and quiet. He never complained or scolded any of us, but thinking back, I have to think he appreciated MaMau's intervention some times.
When we got further along into grade school, I started questioning why Herschel never came in the house. I thought it was Granddaddy who wouldn't let him come in. Lord knows I'd grown up around enough people who freely used the "N" word or were otherwise racist in their speech or actions. Hell, the Klan still marched around the square in Pulaski every year when I was a kid -- a day none of us were allowed to go to town. I couldn't imagine why else Herschel wouldn't come in. I got really mad at Granddaddy one day and told him he should be ashamed of Herschel eating outside. Granddaddy didn't say a thing and walked out of the house.
Later Momma and MaMau sat us down and explained.
It wasn't Granddaddy that kept Herschel out of the house. To the contrary, Herschel wouldn't come inside. He said his Momma would "roll over in her grave if he ever caught him in a white man's house." Granddaddy loved Herschel and welcomed him any time into his home. Turns out he enclosed the back porch and put fans out there, so Herschel would have a cool place to have his lunch in the summer. And it had only been MaMau's begging that talked him into taking the back steps into the basement in winter. He'd have never given in to Granddaddy, but he couldn't tell Mrs. Willa Mae "no" for long.
We couldn't even begin to wrap our minds around what they were telling us. Why wouldn't Herschel's momma let him in Granddaddy's house? Why did it matter if he was white? Keep in mind, this was the 80's and we had no real perspective on race. We were in our own little world, and our only real interaction with black people was with Herschel. My sister and I went to a K-12 school that only had one black boy in the whole school. What the hell did we know? Looking back, it may have been the first time I became aware of race at all.
My dad died when I was two years old, but we still had a strong male figure in our lives in Granddaddy. He was like John Wayne to me. When I was a senior in high school, Granddaddy had a series of strokes and ended up in a nursing home for several months before he died. By then, I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee. I went home for Granddaddy's funeral, and the outpouring of sympathy for my family and respect for my grandfather was immense. It was cold and rainy at the cemetery, and Mom pointed out someone peeking out from behind a truck parked on the road by the cemetery. It was Herschel.
Whispers flew between us, and MaMau asked for us to bring Herschel over. I hopped up and ran over to him feeling like I was 8 years old again. I gave him a hug with my sister and Brad right behind me. Of course, Herschel pulled out a pack of gum. We told him to come sit with us, but Herschel demurred and said he would stay where he was in the back. We told him MaMau wanted to see him, so he came over. My mom hugged him and told him Granddaddy had loved him. MaMau made everyone scoot down, and Herschel sat beside her, with her holding his hand, while they buried Granddaddy. He was as much a part of our family as anyone else, and he belonged with us under that tent.
That was the last time I saw Herschel. A few Christmases ago, I heard my older cousins talking about "that old N*****, Herschel," asking to borrow $5 or $20 every once in a while. They of course obliged and were convinced he never really needed it or spent it. He always insisted on paying them back exactly when he said he would and never missed. As pleased as I was that they'd helped Herschel, I was appalled at their use of that word, especially in reference to Herschel. This was a man Granddaddy had loved and respected, a man who was kind to our family and dear. I berated them both for their use of that word, saying if they were too ignorant to know better than to use that word they should at least know better than to say it in reference to Herschel. My Granddaddy rolled over in his grave that night.
I'm more educated than most of my family. I've seen more things and have a broader world view than most of them as well. I say none of these things as a knock on them or to pat myself of the back. I say them to show the difference in our perspectives. I do not suggest it's an excuse for their ignorance in the use of that word. In fact, it only underlines for me the long distances we have to go in this country when it comes to race. All of us having known Herschel most of our lives, my cousins used an ugly, racist, ignorant term to describe him based solely on the color of his skin, knowing him to be a good and honorable man. How does that still happen?
It's never excusable, but people often use derogatory words to describe someone of low morals or bad character, someone who's wronged them, but none of these things applied to Herschel. They had no reason in the world to use any derogatory term to describe him, much less that one. How then was is so acceptable in their minds that it rolled off their tongues as if they'd called him blond or funny? How are there places that still breed such hate? Why does it still shock me?
I asked my cousins why they thought Herschel asked to borrow money he didn't really need, and he said Herschel once gave him back the same exact $20 bill he'd given him two days earlier. He thought maybe it made him feel good that he could borrow the money if he needed. Maybe it made him feel trusted or respected. Who knows really. Part of me thinks he wanted a connection to the family again. After Granddaddy died, MaMau moved into town, and Herschel couldn't drive, so we didn't see him often. Maybe he missed my grandfather, a man who treated him as an equal as much as Herschel would let him.
For my part, I choose to learn compassion, respect and kindness from my Granddaddy. I choose to remember Herschel for his hard work, courage and packs of gum. And I will always remember a lesson neither may have realized he taught: No matter how scared you are or how different you are, there are somethings that matter more than fear or differences. Like three little kids who played too close to a snake or two men who worked together with mutual respect and love.