THREE FOR THE FOURTH
(Wiladele Nixon ’52)
If you ask me which looms larger in my memory, my
family’s Fourth of July celebration or the three black men who came to share
it with us, I would have to say the men. But
let me tell you how it was back in the forties when I was growing up in Alabama
and found myself at the center of that big party on the Fourth.
If you ask me which looms larger in my memory, my family’s Fourth of July celebration or the three black men who came to share it with us, I would have to say the men. But let me tell you how it was back in the forties when I was growing up in Alabama and found myself at the center of that big party on the Fourth.
Pop, pop, pop, I was awakened in the morning by the noise outside my window. My father was an early riser. “Hotter than a firecracker,” he chided the weather as he bent to light the next fuse. I looked out to see if I could spot any one of the three men coming, but I saw only the seat of my father’s brown pants and the steam rising from the freshly watered lawn.
It took a while for me to get dressed. Until I was about eight, my grandmother ran up a new sunsuit on her sewing machine for me each year. It was always red, white, and blue for the occasion with tricky little buttons on the shoulders that were hard to reach. Before I was done with those buttons, I was handed a miniature American flag. I was expected to wave that flag and exhibit proper patriotic enthusiasm for the balance of the day.
I didn’t have to be told that the clan would be gathered on the front porch complete with its swings, palmetto-fan-waving females, cigar-chewing males, oversized rocking chairs, and what seemed to me at the time like hundreds of flags. I didn’t have to be told either that around ten o’clock when the smoke from the barbecue was really starting to smell fine, Cousin Tommy would rise from his rocker to recite General Lee’s “Farewell to the Troops.” It always surprised me that no one ever got around to reciting “The Pledge of Allegiance” or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The day’s activities were spearheaded by my old maid aunt. Her interest in the occasion stemmed from the day of her birth, July 4, 1884. It was she who provided me with the flag to wave. It was also she who gave me a hasty review of the country’s history. We touched briefly on the outstanding names – Washington, Jefferson, Davis, Lee, Wilson. She always finished by saying, “And don’t forget the wah, honey.” I knew just which war she meant. I didn’t hear about Lincoln or his side until I was in the third grade.
This aunt was a favorite in the family, and kinfolks gathered from all over to help her celebrate. The party grew until everyone for miles knew that we had the best barbecue, the best devilled eggs, the best potato salad, and the best tin cans to place fireworks under. More people dropped by each year to wish my aunt a happy birthday. But the cousins and neighbors were not the ones I waited to see. For me, the party was not complete until the three men came.
Lips was always the first to arrive. He must have begun his celebration early in the morning, because he always appeared in a state of alcoholic bliss, only to sober up on Brunswick stew and birthday cake. Lips was six feet six inches of perspiring black skin. He walked with a cane, carefully planting his size fourteen feet in a perfect slew foot position. I was sure as a child that Charlie Chaplin had learned his stance from Lips. Of course, there was some basis for his name. His lips projected to an amazing degree, and from the almost white flesh of the inner lips, flowed a constant drool.
At the time that Lips attended the Fourth of July celebrations, he was the proud owner of the town's shoe shine parlor. This was located in a structure that he had built himself under the stairs leading to the local lawyer’s second story office. Lips had simply used the stairs for a roof and added walls of old cardboard boxes. He was a respectable businessman at the time I knew him. Once my aunt happened to mention that he had been in the penitentiary seven or eight times…she had forgotten which. I asked about his crimes and she said that he had killed three or four men...she had forgotten how many, exactly. But she was sure now that he had completely reformed.
Lips interrupted our party one year by hurrying over to my aunt. He pointed his cane skyward and sounds rumbled up from the back of his throat. He was excited. There was no mistaking that, but the gargling Gullah syllables all crowded together. It sounded like “Bumble, tumble, jumble.” I stepped closer, trying to understand.
My aunt who seemed to know as much Gullah as she did Greek and Latin smiled at him. “I’ll get some from the storeroom for you,” she said, “and we’ll try to find more tomorrow if you need them.”
“What? Huh? What did he say?”
“Can’t you heah, honey? Boxes, he needs lots of them. That rainstorm yesterday afternoon wiped out his whole west wall. His seats got soggy and nobody wants a wet seat while they’re gettin’ a shine.”
“Gum, sum, dum, awalla, Miss,” he thanked her and headed away towards the shade of the chinaberry tree, ready to bide his time until my grandfather announced that the Brunswick stew was being served.
After Lips’ arrival, we expected Greensboro at any minute. We could hear him coming at least three blocks away, for he would be beating his “jum.” This was his own name for the bass drum with the split side that gave up a strange sort of hollow thud as he beat it. The “jum” was Greensboro’s main source of income. In good times, he wandered the streets of our town playing for any child or grownup who would give him a nickel. Once the nickel had crossed his palm and found its way into his blue overalls, the drum beats would cease and he would be off to a new location and a new nickel.
In bad times, he put the “jum” to another use. He would leave first one “jumstick” and then the other in hock with some local merchant who was quite positive that Greensboro would redeem those sticks sooner than he would a gold watch. Once when times were extra hard, Greensboro had to leave the “jum” itself in hock at Mr. King’s grocery and all of the town’s children would saunter casually into the store every afternoon to take a look at the town’s most famous musical instrument.
To say that Greensboro was lazy would be real understatement. Though he held the title of “Our Yard Man,” he was not often on the premises. When he did come, he would want to leave early. He explained it to us this way, “You see, Miss, I has to leave early. I has to get out on the Tar Well Road befo’ sundown, ‘cause is I don’ the hants’ll git aftah me. Is you evah had hants blow dere hot steam on you? Is you? Lordy, Miss, I jes’ cain’t stan’ dat.” That was his exit line. There was no effective argument against Greensboro’s hants.
My grandfather loved to tell the tale of Greensboro and the hens’ eggs. In the backyard of our home, stood an old outhouse. For some reason, the outhouse attracted our hens who laid great nests of eggs underneath it. My grandfather who had been faced with the egg problem many times, suddenly came up with a new solution as he watched Greensboro shuffling up the street. He called to Greensboro and told him that he had about two dozen eggs for him. He explained carefully the location of the eggs and said that Greensboro only had to crawl under and gather them. Greensboro listened just as carefully, then he said, “Yes, sir, yes, sir, boss man. I sho’ does ‘preciate dat. Thank you kindly. I tells you what. I’se on my way up town. You jes’ get dem aigs togedder an’ I’ll stop on my way back an’ pick dem up. Yes, sir, thank you, sir.” Staring in disbelief, my grandfather watched him head off in the direction of Mr. King’s store.
Lips and Greensboro were true eccentrics, but when the noon whistle sounded at the courthouse, I was looking for the strangest one of the three. I was looking for the one who made me shiver when I thought about him unless I was in the middle of a whole crowd of people in the middle of a bright, sunny day. He appeared while the echoes of the whistle died in the still, July air.
His Fourth of July costume consisted of high rubber boots and a heavy army overcoat that dropped in tatters over the tops of his boots. We were never sure what war had left Armistead – for that was his name – with the coat. This was his standard summer outfit and the oddest thing was that no one had ever seen him perspire. He was quite a contrast to the two slickly-black faces who kept him company at our house on the Fourth. Armistead’s winter costume was what you might have expected after seeing the summer get up. In winter, he wore a white straw hat and a dignifiedly dirty white summer suit, and his bare feet walked through the rare snow or sleet that came to Alabama. He walked very slowly summer or winter, stopping every few feet to crack the enormous whip that he carried over one shoulder. It was said that Armistead could pop a whip louder than anybody in the world.
He never did anything in a hurry. When he came to the end of a block in the town, he would pause for long minutes before crossing the street. When he stood on his head, which he did often, he would pause long minutes before getting back to his feet. The longest that I ever saw him stand on his head was fifteen minutes and he didn’t even ask for a nickel the way Greensboro did. People said that Armistead’s head was almost flat from assuming this posture so much. They said that was the reason he could carry watermelons so easily on his head. There was no end to his skills.
But he was a silent man too. He never spoke a word at the Fourth of July celebrations, just stood with his unfocused eyes blinking from under his bushy brows. Once when I was very young, I heard him speak. I had been playing at the corner down from my house, just at the edge of the street that I had been forbidden to cross. Suddenly I felt that I was not alone, and I looked up to see Armistead in his usual pause at the block’s end. His eyes appeared to focus slowly until I was almost certain that he was really seeing me. Then his hand nearest the whip moved and I could feel myself being cut to ribbons. The hand moved out toward me. I didn’t stir. I couldn’t. Then the hand came to rest on my head. His big hand rested there and he said, “Baby.” Then he started his amble to the other side of the street. When he had crossed, he stopped, turned back to face me, and cracked his whip. It sounded like summer thunder. I didn’t tell my mother about Armistead’s hand for five days.
That was the three of them…all well-known inhabitants of our town. They stood making comments on our Fourth festivities, displaying their musical and acrobatic skills, eating, the barbecue, watching the roman candles, waiting. An outsider might have thought they had come for the food or the fireworks or the fellowship. But we knew. We knew that they would not leave until the yearly ritual was performed. I was usually the one who went in the house to get the camera. We posed them there beneath the wisteria vine. One year I got in the picture too. I wish I could find that picture today!