New Harmony by John Wesley by Julie V
Carla attempted to sleep in the straight back chair in the room of the sleeping old man. She was a black woman, mid twenties, somewhat attractive, a second year Intern, and very tired. Her crossed arms concealed the words C. Miller, M.D. on a purple smock, her shoes were off, feet on the old man’s bed. It was a quiet hiding place, her grandpa’s room, but she would soon be beeped and in motion again. The white haired patient slept, only awake a few hours per day, a stroke victim here until room was found in a nursing home. Carla shifted slightly in her chair.
“Dad, are you sure you can handle this?” Angela asked, walking in with the sleeping 10 month old.
Ernie ran to help his overloaded, frustrated daughter. “Of course. We’ll have great fun,” he replied taking the baby to demonstrate his skill. He had a pallet prepared and lay the sleeping child on the floor.
“I’ve borrowed a crib and stroller from next door, the stairs are barricaded, rat poison’s put away, we’re gonna have the best time,” Ernie said, Angela half listening as she brought stuff in from the car.
“Ok, dad, I really appreciate it. With James traveling, this week has been hell and I’ve got exams to grade, the house is a mess. My God. You have everything?”
Carla stirred on the pallet. “Yes,” whispered Ernie, “now go. See you Sunday.”
That afternoon Ernie dressed the squirming baby and they enjoyed the fall weather in New Harmony, Ohio, on the Ohio river near the border with West Virginia and Kentucky. The year was 1980 and hard times had come with the steel mill closing. Ernie had found work at a chemical plant, one o the lucky ones, many men were unemployed. There were no blacks in the town of 1500, even though this was a key stop in the pre Civil War underground railroad. A sign and monument reminding people of this was wiped out in a flood in the 50’s and never replaced.
Angela and James had adopted Carla from an agency in St. Louis-it was take Carla or wait 2 years for a white child. They lived in the college town of Columbus and this was not considered unusual.
Ernie pushed Carla in the stroller toward the American Café, a New Harmony institution, between empty store fronts downtown. Everyone knew Ernie, who had once run for mayor. They entered the café, the waitress said hi and set up a high chair. He saw buddies from the mill and went in with Carla.
“Say Ernie, show the guys Carla’s trick. Now watch this, guys,” one chubby diner in overalls said.
“You guys should be ashamed making fun of that child,” said the waitress, bringing coffee.
Ernie laughed, “What’s wrong with a little fun, Eileen? Ok, Carla, let’s do our trick.” Ernie held Carla in his arms near his friend’s table, the waitress paused and smiled, Carla smiled back. Ernie had taught Carla to nod her head in response to questions.
“Now Carla, I bet I know what you like. You like watermelon?” Ernie asked, nodding, and Carla nodded, breaking the group up.
“What about fried chicken? You like fried chicken?” asked Ernie and Carla nodded and gurgled.
“Ernie, let me try,” said the chubby guy. “Carla, you like chitlins? You like grits?”
Carla nodded emphatically and waved her arms, tiring of the game. They all laughed and Ernie sat and shared ice cream with Carla.
Back at the house Ernie let Carla crawl around the living room playing with blocks and plastic noise makers, she banged on a toy xylophone. He liked to lie down beside herand let her explore his face. He had strong features, a large nose and very bushy eyebrows that Carla loved to pull. He wore industrial type glasses from the mill that let her pull his nose and large hairy ears. Carla had distinct eyebrows too, something Ernie would point out as evidence of “family resemblance,” one of his favorite jokes at the café.
The following Spring, Angela brought Carla to New Harmony almost every weekend while she did thesis work. She disliked the town and never mentioned it to her husband’s east coast friends. The town had forgotten Angela as well and there was confusion about Ernie’s “grandbaby.” Some said Angela had a black husband, others a black boyfriend that nobody had met. The adoption theory seemed strange—why would a white couple adopt a black child, people wondered.
Ernie kept his regular rounds at the café. He was a widower, so set his own schedule. Carla became a familiar sight there and around town in good weather. Ernie started introducing her as his “pickaninny,” not clearing up the confusion about who she was boy providing lots of amusement. One summer afternoon Angela was more relaxed that usual and agreed to lunch at the café, first time in years she’d been inside it.
Carla was asleep on the seat by Angela when one of Ernie’s work pals came over and good naturedly asked where the “pickaninny” was. Angela shot Ernie a furious look, picked up the sleeping child and with her father following helplessly, left the café. Ernie tried to explain it was a harmless joke. The story made the rounds in New Harmony in various versions, mostly unflattering to Angela.
Angela refused to come back to the “redneck town” for several months so Ernie went and got Carla. That winter was crunch time again in Columbus so Angela began bringing Carla for weekends, to Ernie’s delight. The terrible two’s had set in and Carla was a strong willed, clever child, refusing baths, stalling on bedtime, throwing an occasional tantrum. Ernie was patient but firm and Carla, always testing, respected him.
One afternoon at the café Carla was in the mood for icecream and refused to eat her hamburger, making a mess of it. She threw her drink across the table and let out a yell, demanding ice cream, everyone watching. The mortified Ernie attempted to lead her outside but she fought him, slipping on the spilled drink, building up to a tantrum. As Carla paused for breath Ernie distinctly heard the word “bastard” from a nearby table. Picking the child up, Ernie made it outside, redfaced and angry, half inclined to go back in and confront the man. It was the only time Ernie ever called Angela and asked her to come get Carla. Two weeks later Carla was back and Ernie nervously walked her to the café and everything was fine.
The years passed, other grandkids were born, Carla grew up, showing an aptitude for science. She adopted Angela’s view of New Harmony and they rarely visited Ernie, so as long as he could he made the drive to Columbus. Carla went to Ohio State, then medical school, Ernie contributing from his retirement accounts after her parent’s divorce. And now here he was, helpless.
Carla stood up and stretched. She had not been beeped but something had awakened her. She looked at Ernie’s this face, the eyebrows even more prominent. She touched them gently, and stroked his hair, remembering something from childhood. Her beeper went off, she looked at it. She put on her shoes and left.
The Grave of Adam Ant
My friends Brad and Dale, brothers, and I lived on the White River a mile or so upstream of the new Tablerock Dam. Our dads worked in construction on the dam, leaving each morning in their hardhats, carrying lunch boxes. We lived in trailers on some government land by the river. It was summer and the river was full of fish. We played in caves along the river bank, swung from a rope at a swimming hole, built camp fires and pretended to be Indians. Brad w 10, I was 11, and Dale was 12. We got along well, all in cut off jeans, flat top haircuts, and usually barefoot.
The place we lived and played in was prime river bottom, farmed for decades, between the flinty hills of the Ozarks, all of it soon to be underwater. We tried to imagine putting on diving gear and coming back in a few years and visiting a cave or a tree house. The government had surveyors out, looking through their telescopes, walking around in orange vests and driving green pickups. Most of the land had been bought and farmers were planting their last crop, others figuring out where to move their cattle.
Brad was big for his age so we were pretty evenly matched. In wrestling it took two to defeat the third so there were constantly shifting alliances, sometimes the brothers working together, often not. One afternoon I was on top of Brad in the grass, both face up, and Dale was sitting on the two of us tickling me. I felt Brad’s breath on the back of my neck and on impulse butted him with the back of my head, resulting in a howl of pain and accusations of dirty tactics. Brad got up in tears and they went home, threatening revenge. The next day Brad had a bit of a shiner but we played as usual, at one point climbing a cliff above a favorite cave. They went first then it was my turn, the most dangerous part a 6 foot ledge with poor handholds above a 30ft drop. I worked my way up the ledge as they stood just above, watching. Suddenly warm water cascaded down on me. They were taking a leak on my head, both laughing hysterically at my reaction, their aim suffering as a result. Opening my mouth was perilous so I hung on the cliff until they were done, then swore bloody vengeance. They ran off of course, one of their better pranks I had to admit.
We all liked to fish and had several favorite spots with large downed trees. Catfish were abundant in the warm river water along with fresh water clams and turtles. “Leatherback” soft shell turtles would sun themselves on logs and we pop them with BB guns or sling shots. My dad taught us how to get worms and we knew of an old cemetery with good worms, it was also a spooky place to visit. It was grown up, a mix of forest and river cane, with a few wooden signs nailed on trees that said “Cemetery, Do Not Disturb.”
The graves were scattered here and there and were sunken, filled with leaves. Many had no headstone or marker of any sort. Others had a piece of flagstone, like a paving stone, set up on one end, with no writing. On a typical visit we’d bring an iron pry bar, a small sledge hammer, and a bucket. The technique was first pound the iron bar maybe half way into the soft dirt, then pound on it sideways. Worms were disturbed this and crawled up to escape; we gathered them by the dozens, all over the dead leaves.
The worms gathered, we walked to a large snag on a bend in the river. A massive sycamore had fallen years before and the trunk remained, jutting out into the water, a convenient place to fish from. We talked about the strange old graveyard.
“I wonder why the gravestones are just rocks, nothing written on them,” said Brad.
“My dad says they were maybe criminals or Indians and nobody wanted to bother with making gravestones,” I offered. “Maybe pirates or train robbers,” my favorite theories.
Dale knew better. “That’s a dumb idea. We’re hundreds of miles from the ocean and there’s no train around here. Maybe they died in a plague, dropping over so fast nobody could bury them properly.”
“But why are some marked and not others?” persisted Brad, rebaiting his hook.
“Well, maybe some had wood markers and there’s no trace left,” said Dale.
The possibility was troubling. “I can’t imagine being buried with no trace, no name, just nothing. When I die I at least want my name written out,” I said.
“Me too,” said Brad.
One afternoon the boys came by the house with an old crank telephone. Their dad had loaned them this gear an they wanted to go worm gathering. At the cemetery we pounded in two iron stakes maybe10 feet apart and connected wires to them from the phone, which Dale was in charge of. Dale went to work cranking the phone and the result was immediate, worms were crawling everywhere to escape the jolt of electricity. We did well that day, making two dollars selling worms to some fishermen. From then on we always telephoned for worms.
About a week later Brad and I had the idea of writing names on some of the headstones. I selected one of soft limestone about the size of a legal pad at the head of a deep sunken grave. But what names to give them? Brad suggested names from the Bible, maybe Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego, whom we had just been taught in Sunday School. Adam is easier to spell, I suggested, and he agreed.
“I’ll do the first name, you think of a second. Make it short,” Brad suggested, going to work.
The soft stone yielded easily to Brad’s pocket knife and soon the name was clearly visible. Dale had an idea: “Why not just leave it plain Adam. We’ll label the next one Eve, for a joke.” We vetoed this idea, it was not to be a joke. We debated several last names, finally agreeing on “Ant.” I carved this on the stone and it was complete, even Dale approved. Dale wanted to do one so he selected a stone and we discussed names. Dale’s favorite TV show was the Flintstones but that was too long so we shortened it to “Fred Flint.” Dale went to work—the first name was ok but he ran out of room on the second so it ended up “Fred Flin.”
“Still ok,” said Dale and we agreed. We tidied up a bit around the graves of Fred and Adam and left.
The summer was ending and I had still not taken proper revenge for the peeing on the cliff incident. The chance came at my uncle’s hog farm one afternoon. The pens had electric fences and I told the boys they were turned off and suggested at the count of three we all pee on the fence, anyone who didn’t was yellow. I held my fire and of course the fence was on, Dale and Brad got a good jolt. They finally cornered me with a cattle prod and we agreed on a truce.
When school started that fall we didn’t visit the old graveyard much. The dam was nearing completion so there was lots of interesting activity for us to watch. Surveyors came to the graveyard several times. The feds were moving a number of old cemeteries to a spot behind Redding Church, well above the coming flood waters. One day a crew came and cut down all the trees in the graveyard, then a backhoe was brought in to dig up all the graves. They had a flatbed truck with a dozen or so coffins but we couldn’t figure out how they sorted the bones t. We asked the man in charge and he said they did their best but it was mostly guesswork, stuff got mixed together. He showed us a skull he had in his pickup with a gold tooth, we wondered if it was Adam’s or maybe Fred’s. When the backhoe finished a dozer leveled the spot, the cemetery was gone.
Two years passed and my friends moved away, my family moved into town as the waters covered all our old haunts. One Sunday I went to a funeral at the Redding Church, for an elderly teacher. After the service I asked the pastor where the old graves were and he pointed to a spot in a far corner of the regular graveyard. Walking back there I found a number of simple brass markers with numbers. A man came out of a maintenance shed with a spiral notebook, all the old graveyards were listed. Ours was called “Cloverly,” it turns out. He showed me on a map. I walked over to that section, more markers with numbers plus a few large markers. Would Adam and Fred be here, I wondered? They were. On identical brass plates were the names Ant, Adam and Flin, Fred, side by side as it turns out. My parents were busy so I walked to the teacher’s grave, piled high with flowers, selecting a flower for each of my friends.