Not Long Tales … October 1st, 2019

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4184)

8.

Play Boy

In 1864, while General William Tecumseh Sherman was marching across Georgia, destroying and looting everything in sight on his way to the sea, a man named Big Tom seized the opportunity to run away from the Hutchins Plantation, with all of its peaches and nearby cotton fields, to escape the prison that had been his life since birth.

The townsfolk were in disarray and the Rebel Army was being pushed back, and everybody’s attention was riveted on personal survival. So under the cover of night, with only his shirt, britches, a corn cob pipe and a small pouch of tobacco, Big Tom grabbed his eleven-year-old boy, Garby, and headed toward the North Star.

The best plan, he decided, was to stay two miles behind Union lines all the way North, sleeping in the woods during the day and traveling by night. Dad and boy lived on wild rabbits and scattered berries of questionable origin, as they lay on their bellies and drank out of streams, like all “deer folk.”

The whole trip took two months. Caution was the most important factor in determining the speed of the journey. There were Southern sympathizers everywhere—always the danger that bounty hunters, still loyal to Dixie, might grab the two of them and take them back to their bondage.

Yet there were some bright spots along the way. An old man and sweet lady let them sleep in their barn one night and brought them out some buckwheat pancakes dipped in molasses. Since it was so special, Tom decided to tell Garby that it was his birthday, and God had supplied a great surprise.

Patiently, tirelessly and fervently, they traveled until they stood on the banks of the Potomac River, and gazed across at the seat of freedom—Washington, D. C.

They had been warned by the old couple to be careful when they reached the Capitol, because there were many who favored Jefferson Davis. They suggested the runaways make sure to find an abolitionist to draw up some false papers for them, proving they were free men. So that was the first thing Big Tom did. Quietly he asked among the Negra population that inhabited the city where to find such an individual. He was finally directed to a Quaker couple, who welcomed him and Garby into their house, and drew up the phony identifications. It was a blessing of God.

Paper in hand, Big Tom was able to go to the Union Army and get a job as an orderly, emptying bed pans and taking care of the wounded soldiers housed outside of town. Young Garby went down to the local theater and was given the job of scrubbing the floors following the productions were performed. Sounded like a simple job to him, but he found that all he had was a mixture of lye and wintergreen to clean floors that were filthy from dirt, mud and the spit of tobacco chewers. He also had to freshen up the seats, which were sweaty and grimy—full of all sorts of nasty human residue.

But he never complained, nor did his papa. There was a huge difference between doing hard work as a slave and doing equally hard work when at nighttime, off by yourselves, you are free men.

Now, there were two or three old barns outside the city, where the Negra slaves congregated, making beds of hay and doing their best to cook for one another, sharing stories of their ordeals, with greater hopes for the future.

Although the labor was tedious, Garby was always thrilled to get to the theater—just to be around the kind of folk who lived in Make Believe. But he had to be careful not to be noticed, or they’d chase him away, watching out for him and preventing his curiosity. But after a while, he found some loose boards beneath the stage, and a cubbyhole on one of the ladders which carried the technicians up to check the props.

He loved it all—the funny parts, and even enjoyed it when the Booth family came to down to do their Shakespeare. He didn’t understand a word they said, but they did it all pretty-like, and they were so beautifully dressed up.

He got an opportunity when a magician rented the theater and advertised his show. He asked Garby if he would be willing to climb into a trunk and disappear. He wouldn’t really be gone, the magician explained. There was a trap door, and all Garby had to do was slip out of it. Then, after the magician startled the crowd with the disappearance, Garby needed to slip back through the trap door and reappear, so there would be double applause. Garby was ecstatic.

The first part went beautifully. He slipped out the trap door, disappearing, and shut the door behind him. But when it came time to slip back in, one of the latches got stuck and he couldn’t get it open, so when the magician pulled back the curtain, the little black boy was still gone. Whispering under his breath, the magician said, “Do it again.”

He put the curtain back over. This time Garby gave a big tug on the latch. It opened, and when the curtain was pulled back, there he was. Everybody applauded, but not nearly as much as they would have the first time. The magician was not terribly angry and didn’t yell too much, but also did not give Garby the dollar he’d promised.

Even though Garby was careful not to draw attention to his interest in the theater, and he made sure he got all the stains out of the floor and the seats, everybody still knew that the little Southern boy was crazy about the shows. Matter of fact, since none of them knew his real name, they started referring to him as “Play Boy.”

At first, he was offended, but then the costume seamstress, a woman named Auntie Minerva, explained that it was a compliment. “Don’t be so dense, little feller,” she said. “They’re just sayin’ that you’re a boy who likes the plays.”

Garby shook his head. There was so much to learn. For all eleven years of his life, he’d had two jobs: first, to do what his papa said, and second, to make sure he looked busy when Massa came by. Now he was in a different world, and he was trying to find his place.

Meanwhile, the war raged on, even though most folks knew it was coming to an end. The army of Robert E. Lee had been cornered in Northern Virginia, and the fall of Richmond was imminent. General Ulysses S. Grant had sent surrender terms to the secessionists, and now it was just a matter of days before the horrible four years would come to an end.

Garby didn’t worry much about the war. After all, his conflict was somewhat over. He had been a slave—now he was free. What happened next didn’t seem quite as important as what had come before.

But on one Monday morning shortly before Easter, it was announced that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at some little village in Virginia. (They pronounced the name to Garby, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Somethin’ like “Apple.”)

There was such a celebration in the city—firecrackers, guns shot into the air, people hugging one another (still careful to make sure the embraces were with the same color).

Papa Tom explained to Garby, “Livin’ in Washington does not mean that we are loved, or even accepted. It just means that we’re not gonna be forced to work the fields or beaten if we make a mistake.”

Then late Thursday afternoon—the end of the war week—word got out that the President of the United States would be coming to the theater on Friday evening to see the popular play, “My American Cousin.”

Garby really loved that play. It was silly, and he could understand most of the words. But when he heard that the President—the man who said he was free—the fellow who sent troops down to make sure that freedom was honored—well, when Garby heard that his President was going to be at the theater, he knew he had to make some connection with him. There would be no way to get close, of course—partly due to the fact that the man was President, but mostly because Garby was just a little black boy.

So Garby went out into the woods and found a small piece of wood. He sanded it down until it had a smooth surface for writing on. He hadn’t learned to write yet, but Auntie Minerva was really good at such stuff. He asked her if she would scrawl a note for him, which he wanted to try to get to the President.

She laughed. “You’re never gonna get close to Abe Lincoln,” she said. “He’s a busy, famous man.”

Garby’s heart fell down to his feet. Auntie Minerva continued, “Yet if you want me to do this—if you want to try—I see no harm. What do you want to write on this hunk of wood?”

Garby thought for a second. He had been thinking for several hours on what would be just right. It couldn’t be too long. He didn’t want to take up too much time with the President’s eyes.

“Write this,” Garby said. “Thank you for making me free.”

Auntie Minerva waited, then finally asked, “Is that it?”

Garby nodded. Faithfully, carefully and quite beautifully, the aging seamstress wrote the words on the wooden surface. She read them aloud, pointing to each one.

Garby wanted to hug her, but his papa said that was not something that black-skinned folks should do. So he shook his head over and over again, with tears in his eyes.

Auntie Minerva reached over and patted his nappy hair. He walked away from her slowly, staring at the beautiful figures written on his wooden message board.

Now…how could he get it to Mr. President?

Some of the slaves had started calling Mr. Lincoln “Father.” Others referred to him as “Captain.” Garby just thought he was great. He decided to do something bold.

When the soldiers in charge of the President’s detail arrived late Friday afternoon, before the play began, to make sure the President’s box in the theater was clear and there was no danger, Garby was waiting. He stepped forward to the man with the biggest feather in his hat. The Commander, in his haste, nearly knocked him down in his haste. Upset by the little boy’s appearance, he spat, “Get away! This is no place for a little urchin!”

Garby did not know what an urchin was, but he figured the Commander was right. It was probably no place for him. But he was on a mission. He mustered all the strength and all the will he could and spoke. “I was wondering if you could give this to President Lincoln?” He held up his small piece of wood.

The Commander took it, looked at it front and back and then read it. “I don’t even know if I’ll see the President,” he responded. “So you might want to keep it until you see him another day.”

Garby was determined and vigorously shook his head. “No, sir,” he replied. “He’s too big, and I’m too small.”

The busy Commander found himself touched by the words. He told Garby he would do what he could and tucked the piece of wood into his breast pocket. Knowing it was time to make a retreat, Garby turned and quickly slipped away. For the next hour he just sat in a corner of the alley behind the theater and dreamed about Captain—Father—President Abe—reading his note.

A little bit late, the Presidential carriage finally arrived, and the family was hustled into the theater and up to the awaiting Presidential Box. That night there were so many in attendance there was no room to even get through the front door, so Garby found his favorite side window and sat underneath it, listening carefully to what was going on. There were muffled words, laughter, hands clapping.

But then, all of a sudden, there was a bang. Then there were screams. Garby knew the play, and at no time would the production make folks scream. The screams increased. Before he could move one muscle, he heard the front doors of the theater bang open. Soldiers came running down the street.

All the instincts he had gathered during his time on the plantation in Georgia kicked into gear. He slid around the corner and pushed himself up against the building, trying to be invisible. Such horrible sounds. Frantic men, shuffling boots, screaming women. And then finally, from the front of the theater, a man bellowed, “The President’s been shot!”

Garby slapped his own face, praying, wishing that he had fallen asleep, and it was all a dream. A horrible dream. But he wasn’t sleeping—he was awake, and the message spread down the street like a brush fire.

Garby stayed where he was. He wanted to run. He wanted to find the man who had done such a thing to his hero. He wished he was a surgeon, and could remove the bullet, or that he had the power of Jesus and could heal the wound.

Instead, he sat very still, like a black boy should. For an hour—then two—and finally, he fell asleep. Horrible nightmares of bullets.

And a dead President.

It was morning when he woke up, chilled, shivering from fear. There was still a bustle in the street, but it was much quieter. He stood to his feet, his legs aching, and walked around the side of the building. He made his way to the front door.

The manager of the theater was standing, staring up at his own establishment. Garby had never spoken to him; he had only seen him two or three times. But all at once, his boss, as if awaking from a deep slumber, turned and saw him. “Aren’t you Play Boy?” he said.

Garby’s eyes grew very wide with surprise. He couldn’t speak—all he could do was nod his head. The manager motioned for him to come toward him, but Garby was afraid. What was wrong? Were they going to blame him for the President being shot? He knew that was impossible, but why would the manager want to speak with him?

The manager motioned again, and finally the boy was able to move. He stood next to his employer, looking up into his face. The man spoke, “I would like you to do something for me.”

Garby nodded.

“The President just died,” the manager said.

Garby sucked in air, tears struggling to push their way out. And then, an amazing thing—the manager knelt down and took Garby’s face in his hands. “He was our father, too,” he said.

The little boy could not contain it any longer. Forsaking propriety, he buried his face in the waistcoat of the white man and sobbed. The manager held him, and after a few seconds, pulled back and looked into his eyes. “Play Boy, I want you to do something that nobody else wants to do. They tell me that you’re my best cleaner. I’ve set aside extra lye and plenty of wintergreen, and even some bleach. Son, I want you to go up into the President’s Box and clean it thoroughly. Wash away all the blood.”

Garby could not believe it. Stunned, he stared at the man, who continued. “I don’t want it there. I don’t want people taking pictures of it. I don’t want people coming and trying to acquire drops of our President’s blood.”

Garby was scared, but in his own eleven-year-old way, he understood. He agreed to do it. Gathering the supplies necessary to do the job, he headed up to the very special box reserved for the nation’s leader.

Cautiously, he walked into the door. It was a total mess—chairs knocked over and the smell of death hung in the small room. He was completely alone. It was so quiet that he felt he could hear the beams of wood weeping.

He made his way down to the President’s seat, staring at the blood. He knelt and offered up a prayer to his Jesus. “Help me do a good job.”

Garby scrubbed and scrubbed, and he cleaned and cleaned. After about an hour, any trace of crimson had disappeared, and the wood shone through.

He was about to stand to his feet and leave the box when he noticed—right underneath the seat where the President had been watching the play—there was an object of some sort.

Slowly, tentatively, Garby reached for it. As soon as his fingers touched it, he knew what it was—his chunk of wood, with his note.

He couldn’t pick it up. He just kept his fingers on it, stilled in disbelief. Then, encouraged by a surge of faith, he grabbed it and looked at it. There was more writing on it than Auntie Minerva had originally written. Scrambling to his feet, he ran out the door, into the street, looking for anyone who might be able to read the words on his piece of wood.

There was a man strolling toward the theater door, with two other men carrying cumbersome camera equipment. Garby stopped him. “Please, kind sir,” he said, “can you give me a minute?”

The man brushed him to the side. Determined, Garby tugged on his coat. “Please,” he begged.

Angrily, the man turned. “What is it you want?”

Garby held up the piece of wood. “I need you to read this to me. I can’t read. Would you read it, please?”

The fellow heaved a huge sigh of disapproval but took the small slab from Garby’s hand. He glanced down and read aloud: “Thank you for making me free.”

He finished reading and handed it back to Garby, who thrust it back. “No, there’s another part. I can tell.”

The man looked down with a frown, which gradually, ever so slowly, melted into a smile. He read again, from the top, “Thank you for making me free.”

Garby interrupted. “Yes, that’s what I wrote. I mean, that’s what Auntie Minerva wrote for me.”

The photographer shook his head and continued. “Kid, then it reads: Gladly. A. Lincoln.

Garby grabbed it from the photographer’s hand. He stared down at the words. The wood was speckled with drops of blood.

The Captain had spoken.

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Iz and Pal (Bedouin Buddies)


Iz and Pal

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4057)

Sitting Twenty-One

Matthew Bradley was a photographer with a lesser known news organization with the unfortunate acronym of W.U.S.—Wire United Service.

Matthew refused to be called Matt because he felt that using his full name, Matthew, along with Bradley, might remind people of the famous photographer, Matthew Brady, from the Civil War, who no one remembered anyway.

He was sweet—which in the world of romance, is akin to leprous. He wasn’t unattractive, but certainly never did anything to paint his old barn. He nervously talked too much, and his voice was pitched high. His cheeks were sunken and his teeth, with just a touch of “buck” to them, threatened halitosis. For his breath was just south of peppermint with a hint of garlic, which made close contact just a little stuffy.

Matthew liked Karin. He was infatuated. She was a female and he, a male. Twice a month he asked Karin to go out on a date. She had never accepted the offer—not only fearing that he might become too obsessed, but also having little desire to provide the lion’s share of the small talk.

Even though Karin was not interested in him as a potential boyfriend, she had never needed a photographer as much as she needed one now. Pictures were required so that the public could catch a vision of what was going on in the desert with Iz and Pal.

Taking a deep breath, Karin picked up her phone and called him. She told him that she wanted to see him. There was a very long pause. Matthew replied, “Who is this really?”

After thoroughly convincing him of her pedigree and authenticity, they met for a brief luncheon, at which time she explained her dilemma. He never took his eyes off what seemed to be a region below her nose and above her mouth. It was unnerving.

Yet he agreed to go with her to the desert location to take pictures—if she agreed to attend a correspondence dinner with him in two weeks, where he was going to receive some sort of simple award. Even though Karin was dedicated to the project and wanted to do what she could for the two young fellows, she still paused for a moment to consider what an evening with Matthew would be like—especially if he was juiced up with the energy of grasping a small trophy.

Still, she knew how important this visual would be to her article—and taking heart from contemplating that some forms of cancer can take effect suddenly, be diagnosed and kill in less than fourteen days, she agreed.

They split the bill, she offered him a mint and they headed off into the desert.

Donate ButtonThe producers of jonathots would humbly request a yearly subscription donation for this inspirational opportunity 

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