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Southern Folks

Sunday mornings in a little Middle Tennessee farming town, just past the second bridge, black families gathered to praise the Lord. Not Willie Hawkins and his wife. They stayed home and listened to a preacher on the radio.

Willie was of the opinion that too many black people in one place could be dangerous if some redneck got it in his head to cause them harm. Some uneducated and useless human being, taking advantage of men, women and even children, just because the Almighty and his angel helpers decided to paint them with a different hue.

They had shot up black churches before. Willie told me, "They's a whole messa' crazy peoples out there. God help us."

In town, they called him Willie and her Willie's Wife. I never did catch her first name. They were first cousins. Back in the '50s and out in the country, that kind of thing didn't matter that much.

Just the two of them lived in a small house, above Cathy's Creek, across the road from the Vaughn family. They were within throwing distance of the town's only school — first through 12th grades, all under one roof.

Their house was really more a shack. A little bit of yellow showed through broken chips and exposed layers of other colors Willie had painted it through the years. There was moss in between the wrinkles on the roof and a heavily mortared, old brick fireplace. The front windows were purplish, kind of like carnival glass, and reflected what or whoever walked by.

Every day, an old red dog with a faded white face would drop by and lie out on the front porch. Willie called him Red. Sometimes, a couple of chickens would jump up and lie down at the other end of the porch and cluck at the dog. Toward dark, Red would get up and head back down the road to his house. He'd be back bright and early the next morning.

After supper, Mr. Vaughn, his wife and almost all their kids swept and mopped the school's floors, emptied classroom trashcans and hauled it all away. The Vaughns lived just a couple of notches better than Willie and his wife. The Vaughns had indoor plumbing, a truck and a job. Willie and his wife got their water from the well, traveled on foot and worked odd jobs. Being old and black didn't help matters.

Sometimes, Mr. Vaughn would need extra help and would hire up Willie and his wife. A few extra quarters in their pockets made a big difference. You could buy a lot for a quarter — a loaf of bread, a gallon of gas, a pack of Lucky Strikes. Every little bit helped.

Both of them were well into their 70s. They were thin, white-haired and extremely to themselves. Homebodies. Once in a while, Willie would step out and feed their small brood of farm animals. From the road, you could hear Willie talking to them — a milk cow, a dozen or so chickens, a black mule and three or four floppy-eared pigs.

Those pigs used to run alongside the front barbed-wire fence every time my dog, Prince, and I passed by. I named them. I called one of them Spot. Another one Frosty, like the pig in the Frosty Morn bacon TV commercial. Willie got a chuckle out of that. As time went on, Frosty and another pig disappeared. Not long after, Willie's wife offered me a black-peppered pork chop. I never connected the dots.

Toward dusk, Willie and his wife would sit on the side of the front porch, which was hidden from the road by some sticker bushes and a scraggly cedar tree. From time to time, Prince and I sat with them.

She and Willie took turns reading the Bible to one another. There were words that neither of them could pronounce. I helped when I could. I was in the fourth grade. Willie and his wife hadn't gone past the sixth grade. Between the three of us, we managed to get the gist of the passages.

Our conversations stopped abruptly whenever Willie thought he heard something.

If somebody walked by their house, Willie would lean over in his chair, pull back a limb and peer over it to see who was out there. If there were too many cars going by or something just didn't feel right, Willie and his wife would go in the house. They would spend the rest of the night reading the Scriptures, praying and looking out the front-room window.

Those days, a black man had to be on his toes. Say or do one thing wrong to a white man, and he might show up at your front door with some of his white-hooded friends. They had already hauled away Willie's father years back. That was the last he and his family ever saw of him. In that same year, Willie's uncle, Willie's wife's father, was hung from a tree. They said he had stolen something.

I remember Willie crouching down, looking from side to side and out of the corner of his mouth whispering to me, "He never stolen nothin' from nobody in he life. They jus' upset 'bout him bein' so loud-talkin'."

As young as I was, I realized that Willie and his wife were living their lives in fear. Afraid to leave their "safe place." Staying quiet and unnoticeable. For very good reasons, they trusted only each other. And God.

All these years later, seems like not much has changed. Given what's going on in our world, Willie's summation is still very much applicable. There are, indeed, a mess of crazy people out there.

Lord, I sure hope you're getting ready to do something about all this. Please help us.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment industry before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. He can be reached at bill_stamps@aol.com or through Facebook.

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