Do you remember when you were a kid and you thought that all the dead people were up there (or down somewhere else) watching the living, kind of like in a coliseum? I heard that in church ... many times. That's the image I had when my parents, my teachers, and other old people started on about what "They say." "They" was a tricky concept for me, but I caught on and learned that these "they" were just too remote for me to know personally.
I was a spirited, often unsupervised, little boy on the eve of integration in a small south Alabama town where summer vacations went on forever. I wasn't especially clever for my age and was for the longest confusing words like "lion" and "line." In our backyard, "the clothes hanging on the lion" was an invitation to a real adventure. In school I remembered they taught us "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," so I did, several times. Each time I got a whipping.
In church, my Dad, the pastor, used to say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." One Sunday after lunch, I asked my oldest sister—she did the crosswords—what intentions were and she told me it was what made me want to play lion tamer with the clothes. From that day on, I ceased lion-taming. Hell was the scariest thing I knew. And I could see all those people in Hell watching me.
There were lots of these rules I ran into. So many I couldn’t keep track. Besides most of the time, my head was filled with all sorts of other little boy thoughts. And my writing was “ineligible” Mrs. Martin said and my spelling atrocious. In my final spelling test I wrote "Q-E-S-S" when the teacher said "dress." Diphthongs were an issue for many years.
Anyway, about that time the rules about crime not paying, honesty being the best policy, and truth always winning out were the big ones for me. That's because in addition to the coliseum, which I’d seen on TV once when O.J. Simpson played Notre Dame, there were people closer by watching to see if I did wrong. And at that age I didn't know the distinction between felony and misdemeanor. Jail was for a while a nightly terror, ever since I overheard my Dad talking about the jails he visited. Once I was so afraid I returned a half-eaten candy bar to the little green store where I bought my baseball cards.
One day near the end of August, I got caught in a real mess. A few weeks before, I’d made one of my neighbors, who was one grade ahead of me, angry by saying his girlfriend was ugly. He didn't do anything at the time, because we were in the fellowship hall in the basement of the church. His beet-red face showed he would not be turning the other cheek for long.
On this particular hot and sticky late summer day silenced by the drone of the cicadas, he was standing alone at the top of a small hill on the large front lawn of the Baptist Assembly. It looked down over the railroad tracks to our single downtown street in the middle of which my little green store sat squeezed between Rosen’s Mens Store and Miss Glad’s flower shop where Mom worked Saturdays. He called me over, and said we should let bygones be bygones. I complied. He was not alone.
When I finally dragged in, my older brother, who was getting ready to cut the grass, took one look and growled "Who did that?" One thing I liked about my big brother was that while he beat me up every now and then, he wouldn't let anybody else get away with it.
“Don’t tell Mom and Dad," he said as he washed my face and arms with the garden hose. “Just tell ‘em you had an accident on your bike.”
“Remember what I told you about General Stonewall Jackson.” He was a hero to my brother, and by association, a hero to me. The association was made closer by the fact that one of our distant cousins up north in Virginia was supposed to be a distant relative of the General.
“Never give ‘em the high ground" was the last thing my brother said before he sped off on my bike. I was beginning to get confused. What he said—and partly the way he said it—made me feel strong inside. But it somehow didn’t sit well with what they said in church or around the dinner table. It felt like butterflies in my belly when I imagined all those ancient faces staring down into the arena to see what I’d do or think or feel next.
Peter McMillan is a part-time writer and part-time ESL instructor who grew up in the Deep South and now lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers.