(The following is based on true events about my father, Helon Dunlap. Helon, pronounced Hee-lon, is a Biblical name found in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 1, verse 9. Most folks mispronounce Helon as Helen. Unfortunately, my father had no middle name to fall back on. All non-family names appearing in the following are substitutes.)
Rummaging through a drawer the other day, I happened upon my father’s second grade report card. Printed on a rectangular piece of yellowed card stock, not much bigger than an index card, the report card showed that my father, Helon Dunlap, was an average student with a slight affinity toward arithmetic. With the exception of a few night classes to improve his reading and writing skills in the mid-60s, a 1933 second grade education was the only formal schooling my father acquired in his 77 years.
My father was 13 when that report card was issued. A teenager in the second grade was fairly common during that time in the hills of Stokes County, NC. Four years into The Great Depression, making a living by whatever means necessary took precedence over acquiring an education. Tobacco farming and gardening were vital life-sustaining necessities for families during that period and everyone, including children, worked the fields from the time seeds were sown through harvest.
My father was the second oldest child out of 11 siblings. The oldest, Aunt Grace, helped raise her brothers and sisters after my grandmother, Pencie Hall Dunlap, died of pneumonia. Aunt Grace never attended school and she never married. She devoted her life to her siblings. When she became too old to cook or clean, a brother and sister cared for her until she died peacefully one evening sitting in a recliner watching a favorite TV program. There could not have been a better name chosen for such a selfless, giving woman as my Aunt Grace.
With such a large family, wearing hand-me-down clothes was essential and expected. Unfortunately, my father did not have an older brother whose clothes he could inherit. He frequently attended school barefoot, in clothing patched from the fabric of flour and fertilizer bags. He often bore the brunt of physical and verbal abuse from older boys who had better clothes and shoes.
One such confrontation occurred on the school playground during recess. An older boy, Dean Murphy, a large, boastful, bully who dressed better than his classmates and wore shoes, approached my father from behind. With one quick sidestep in passing, Murphy stepped on my father’s right foot. “Whar yer shoes, Helen?” grinned Murphy, adding the incorrect feminine spin to my father’s name. Murphy then laughed and walked back to the school building as the bell ending recess sounded. Humiliated and embarrassed, my father’s exposed toes throbbed in pain the remainder of the day.
My grandfather, James H. Dunlap, was a tall, stout man with large hands. As a small boy, I remember seeing my grandfather duck his head slightly to enter a room. Grandpa wore a hat and doorways in old farm houses were shorter than today’s standards but seeing him stoop slightly to enter a room was an impressive sight. Family guestimates are that Grandpa Dunlap stood six feet, six inches and weighed a solid 240 pounds. His sheer presence demanded attention and respect. He was a stern father but a loving one too which is why, when time from farming allowed, he would sit on the front porch of the small Dunlap home and wait for his children to arrive from school. My father, hampered by his sore foot, was the last child home the day of the playground incident.
“Why are you late?” Grandpa asked, eyeing the foot that Helon was favoring.
Helon pawed the ground with his good foot; head down, he said, “Dean Murphy stepped on my foot. He was wearing shoes.”
Such a reply could be construed as a veiled complaint about not having shoes to wear and I said as much to my father the first time he told this story to me. “You never complained about what you had or what you didn’t have in those days,” he said. “You didn’t whine about where you lived or the way you lived or what you did for a living. You didn’t whine period. You were told to be thankful for what little you had and for every scrap of food that was put before you on the supper table. Complain about your circumstances and you’d find yourself in the woods hunting a good-sized switch that would be used on your backside. If you brought back a measly poor thin twig of a switch, a belt would be used instead.”
A few uncomfortable moments passed between father and son and I believe to this day that Grandpa was sizing-up Helon for what lay ahead. Finally, Grandpa leaned forward in his chair, looked Helon in the eyes and said, “What are you going to do about it?”
It was a question that Helon did not expect and he fidgeted for an answer. “Well, I don’t know. Dean Murphy is bigger and older than me. Everyone at school is afraid of him.”
Grandpa rose from his chair, stepped off the wooden porch, stood before his son, an imposing giant of a man. He put his large hands on Helon’s shoulders and said, “You take care of this, son. If Dean Murphy lays another hand or foot on you, without you having tried to at least defend yourself, you’ll receive a second whupping when you get home.”
That night Helon lay in bed considering his father’s matter-of-fact admonishment. On one side he had the school bully waiting to torment him, on the other, his father, ready to whip him if he allowed it. Helon pondered his plight, trying to find a way out of his predicament. No matter how he looked at it, one thought was foremost on his mind: Being on the receiving end of two whippings in one day did not appeal to him at all.
Helon did his best to avoid Murphy the next day and was fairly successful until recess. A stack of lumber and various building supplies had been left on the playground earlier in the morning, materials for a room that would be added to the school. Thinking to conceal himself, Helon hurriedly made his way toward the lumber and nearly bumped into Dean Murphy and Dewey Yates as he rounded the corner. Yates, a pale thin boy who was Murphy’s henchman, grabbed Helon by the arm and shoved him toward Murphy..
“Hey, Helen. Whar yer shoes?” taunted Murphy, who stepped forward quickly and stomped Helon’s sore foot again. The pain was excruciating, causing the barefoot boy to stumble backwards and fall. Laughter erupted from the older boys as Yates moved to flank Helon from behind. Anger and fear-induced adrenalin coursed through Helon’s body–anger at being humiliated and injured by Dean Murphy again and fear at what his father would do to him if he did not defend himself. Tears welled-up in Helon’s eyes, fueling more laughter from Murphy and Yates.
“Hey, look Murph!” said, Yates; “Helen’s crying!”
Helon sensed a crowd forming, shadows gathering around him, hushed whispers of classmates drawn to the commotion by the stack of lumber. Embarrassed, Helon’s face flushed red.
Murphy began dancing on a wooden board, his shoes clacking on the plank as he made his way toward his fallen victim, a rhythmic six step jig that seemed to speak in as many syllables, I have shoes and you don’t! I have shoes and you don’t! I have shoes and you don’t!
Helon put his hands down to push himself off the ground, felt his right hand touch something hard and rectangular, a brick judging by the feel, one of many left with the building supplies. The smaller boy jumped to a standing position, swinging upward with brick in hand, delivering a swift and unexpected upper cut to the jaw of Dean Murphy. Murphy staggered back, eyes glazed in disbelief. Legs wobbling, the older boy dropped into a sitting position, took one final look at his barefoot adversary, then lay back moaning, holding his bleeding jaw.
Helon turned to face Yates, but the older boy and the crowd were scrambling back to the school, Yates screaming and pointing wildly at the boy with the brick.
Helon dropped the brick at Dean Murphy’s feet and ran home. He never went back to school and no school official came looking for him. And Grandpa Dunlap neither whipped him nor rewarded him for his actions which, I suppose, was reward enough unto itself.
Bio: Curtis Dunlap lives near the confluence of the Mayo and Dan rivers in Mayodan, North Carolina. He has been published in a variety of journals including The Christian Science Monitor, Contemporary Haibun Online, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Floyd County Moonshine, Frogpond, Haibun Today, The Heron’s Nest, Magnapoets, Modern Haiku, Rusty Truck, and The Wild Goose Poetry Review. His web site is located at http://tobaccoroadpoet.com/