A Certain Place in the World
Some say the very basis of a man’s personality is formed when they are mere boys. Perhaps it’s because of certain events they take part in or have witnessed at a young age. I can personally attest to this being accurate for some, and at least in my case it is true enough.
Jerry Cauthern was my best friend and closest neighbor out in the rural countryside of southeastern Georgia. The nearest town--a small one at that--was known as Clear Springs. Not that we went to town very often as it was too far to walk.
We usually went only when we needed a haircut every couple of weeks or so, but we didn’t miss it much as the tiny hamlet had little to offer in the way of entertainment.
Life To Explore
Besides, we had thousands of acres to wander and explore in the vast--and to us--mysterious swamps of the area. That is, when we weren’t working in the fields cropping tobacco or hoeing peanuts on our parent’s farms.
They call me Bobby, after my father Robert Carson, and I’m very proud to be named after him. He served in WWII, fought in many famous battles--D-Day, and The Battle of the Bulge, just to name a few--and survived until the war was finally over.
He then came home to farm and raise a family, because it was all he'd ever really wanted to do. A good man he was. In fact, as good a man as I've ever known in my long lifetime.
South Georgia was in the midst of a great change at this time. Gone were the days when the countryside was dotted with the small homes of poor black sharecroppers all farming with mules. That was my grandfather’s era and it was all he’d known his entire life
He was of the old school, and like many others of his generation, he hated change of any shape or form. I was never very close to him at all, certainly not like I was with Dad. But then, Dad had seen the world where grandfather had only known Georgia. It made a great difference, I suppose.
Jerry and I decided to go camping one weekend when the weather finally turned cool enough for the skeeters not to be so bad. We chose Carson’s Bay because it was close by, and because it had always been home to the famous Crier. But the Crier of Carson’s Bay is another story, for another day and time.
The year was 1963 and Jerry and I were 13 years old at the time. The south was different then, different in a way folks don’t realize now, or don’t want to remember if the truth be told. It was a white man’s world in Georgia back then.
A white man’s kingdom, some thought it was. But my Dad had seen enough of this type of injustice during his time in the war. I suppose he had seen misery and sorrow in all races of men while fighting the Axis powers.
He came back with a different outlook towards the poor blacks who barely scraped a living in the tobacco and cotton fields, or chipping the yellow pine for the turpentine distilleries in the area. There was little else offered them. I suppose misery eats at one’s soul, even if it isn’t one’s own personal misery. The pain and sorrow of others can be almost as bad as one’s own. I know this for a fact.
So Jerry and I entered Carson’s Bay late one Saturday evening, setting up an old oiled tarp as a tent for the night and anxious for our adventure. We took our fishing poles, as the bay was full of catfish we planned to exploit if lucky enough.
We gathered up our other provisions, such as a loaf of bread, eggs, and a small ham to slice and cook in the skillet, along with a couple of blankets to cut the chill at night. All this we toted in burlap sacks thrown across our skinny shoulders. We settled in fairly soon and watched as the sun went down behind the moss draped trees surrounding our camp.
The moon was full, and so bright we let the campfire burn down to just embers as we lolled around staring into it. Full of good food and a bit drowsy as well, we thought at first we’d imagined the screams. “Did you hear that?” Jerry gasped . “Coulda been a panther,” I replied, thinking about these rarely seen big cats which on occasion, roamed these thick swamps.
“Nope,” Jerry replied softly “that was a man screaming, sounds like he’s in bad pain or somethin‘.” My first thought was it was the Crier, but I knew the Crier never sounded in pain, at least not in the many tales I’d heard about him.
“Lets go see if we can help him,” I said “it may be somebody we know in trouble out here.” We didn’t have a flashlight nor did we need one with the moon being so bright in the sky. At this time the pine timber in the bay was tall and open, the ground beneath it covered with either palmetto bushes or wire grass.
Regular burning kept it clear of other trees and bushes for the most part. As long as we didn’t step on a snake or in a hole, we’d be okay. After fifteen minutes or so of moving we could see a large fire in the distance. The screams had stopped for the moment, but we could hear muffled voices.
At first I thought the figures were ghosts. Tall and completely white, they appeared to float around the fire as we snuck closer, using the palmettos to hide our approach from the creatures. “Oh God,” Jerry gasped “it’s the Klan.”
He was right, I could see the head klansman with his specially marked hood, so recognizable at the time. He stood by silently while several of his soldiers threw water in the face of a rather small black man we hadn’t noticed lying unconscious on the ground.
With their captive finally aroused, they began holding his feet closer to the fire as I assumed they had before. I was certain they had done other horrible things to this poor creature before we had arrived. Even worse, I knew the young black man.
A War of my Own
Only 25 years of age or so, he had dared to stand up to some bullies in town not long ago, had whipped three of the white boys before getting out of town to safety. But they had caught him at last and now he was paying the price for standing up for himself.
The nerve of doing so did not impress this group of men. No…not these men. Not too many years from that horrific night I also went to war.
My tour in Vietnam exposed me to all manner of cruelty and suffering, perhaps similar in nature to what my father suffered in his own war. We both saw enemies on different sides, saw them killing each other senselessly, as in all wars. But not in this manner of cold heartedness.
Dreams To Forget
I still wake up some nights in a cold sweat, hearing the faint echoes of those horrid screams ringing in my ears, smelling the faint aroma of charred flesh, remembering the things I wanted so badly to forget, but cannot.
Perhaps worst of all was when we began to creep slowly away in horror, both of us only pausing to vomit up our disgust with mankind as we crept shakily along towards our own campsite. This was when we heard the Klan’s leader say “Poke them feet deep in thet far boys, he needs to ‘member his place in the world.”
I’d know my grandfather’s voice anywhere.