Sunday, August 13, 2017

The curious wooden shack

A growth spurt in the South.

The Lynch story earlier forced me to recall this.

4421 Barksdale Blvd, Bossier City Louisiana

Farther out in Google Earth you can see Shady Grove, our area, the nearby school, and North of that, the Air Force Base and its vast reservations. At street level you’ll have to back up a bit on the boulevard, maybe back and forth a bit, on the Western lane nearest the house to see it, and then only two of the white columns of the house show from behind two very large trees that obscure all the rest of the red brick house and with light shining through that obscures anything useful. Nothing else is left of the place but the house while at one time it was an actual working plantation. This was the plantation house that lorded over the entire area, a pecan plantation and nothing else around came anything near to its imposing splendor. The plantation was long ago subdivided for individual homes and the worst oldest trees removed for houses and roads to be built among the remaining trees so that each new home on the opposite side of this broad boulevard, away from Red River, had a pecan tree in the front yard and second pecan tree in each of the new back yards. 

Since then home owners built outwardly, planted their own trees and their own plants and gardens and presently the original pecan trees are so old they’ve died in slow motion, produced less and less poor quality pecans, dropped branches dangerously all over the place and eventually were cut down. It’s been forty years and the trees were already played out when we lived there among them in the area named Shady Grove. 

In Fall and Winter the trees look exactly like scary Halloween trees. They’re perfect with their gnarly bizarrely twisting branching.

On this side of the broad boulevard nearest this large red house, the pecan trees were in better shape but still mature to the point of being commercially unviable. 

But that doesn’t mean useless. Eddy and I ventured across and scooped up pecans on that property by the handful. Loaded up paper shopping bags full of pecans and sold them to convenience stores nearby for cash. At the time, twenty-five cents a bagful. So it took a lot of bagfuls for just a few dollars. We can quite rightfully call all of that slave wages.

But what else were boys to get up to? Mow lawns? In that heat? Too much work.

Presently, the original plantation has been completely cleared out  and new commercial structures built up all around it. The levy has changed and now there is an actual road running along the length of the river where once only a levy protected the entire town from the river’s floods all the way through Shreveport.  Still, though, around the house is quite a lot of flat undeveloped area, or maybe I should say de-developed unused cleared out and cleaned up area, as if the land is so poisoned by the taint of slavery that nobody cares to be near it. Or maybe the family chose not to sell. All this shows rather clearly in Google Earth. 

When we lived in one of the houses, mostly purchased by military families who were posted at nearby Barksdale AFB, the plantation house was considered untouchable. Nobody bothered to cross the boulevard and go over there. There was no good reason.

In front of the house and closer to us a very long stable ran in the direction of the highway. From a distance the property appeared spectacular. And further yet, even closer to us, seemed the edge of the property, the far edge of an intervening pasture with sparse cattle, and a dirt path that ran the width of the pasture all the way to the levy. 

Halfway along the path stood, barely stood upon stacked cinder blocks, a broken down wooden shack of the sort depicted in the film the Color Purple, except the shack in the film was a lot better than the shack on the path. 

That shack was of tremendous interest to me and my friend Eddy. 

I never heard the term “military brat” when I was one, and neither did anyone else that I knew. And by multiple transfers I knew an inordinate number of military dependents. But I cannot think of a better term myself to describe us. We were brats. Obnoxious brats. Truly. But we didn’t know that either. We thought we were normal kids living normal lives even as these incidents at these places were extraordinary. 

They did teach us about slavery in school. We were all assigned Louisiana History. Obviously the subject was covered. And that class really was demanding and difficult and impressively involved besides. We took field trips to New Orleans and to the state capital in Baton Rouge, through the odd obelisk capitol building and all through the governor’s mansion. It’s impossible to forget the teacher of that class, of literally hundreds of teachers, the most impressive, the most well known teacher in that particular High School. He was a very large man always dressed in heavily starched white shirt, thinning gray hair, a mobster appearance with shiny burnished white skin. 

This teacher had a peculiar obsession, a humor device about buggers. He’d draw Captain Hook on the blackboard then scribble a mark at the tip of the hook and draw sun rays shinning out for emphasis and tell the class Captain Hook picked his nose that mark is a bugger. 

Then his bugger remark swept the whole school and each student taking this required class awaited the moment they see him draw Captain Hook’s bugger. 

Captain Hook, of course, is a fictional character in Barrie’s Peter Pan and has nothing whatsoever to do with Louisiana History. The teacher merely inserted him into Louisiana History to say the word “bugger” and make the class funny and interesting to teenagers just that easily amused. He really did know his audience.

And we were amused.

I read all the time how lowly Louisiana ranks in education. But I know by living it those statistics are bogus. This was the most challenging High School I attended. The High School in Colorado that followed does not even compare, even though it was 10X better funded and far more expansive. By the end of 10th grade in Louisiana all my Colorado requirements were already completed. Colorado was a breeze compared with Louisiana.

I met a girl in that Louisiana History class who left a lasting impression, a real teenage long blond haired beauty of the sort destined to be prom queen, but right off upon transferring into that school I noticed that none of the teenage boys all older than myself and more physically developed who were in the same class pursued her. I wondered why that was so. She was a natural target for young male attention but none of the males in the class even tried. A real oddity. Why? I discovered the reason in the very first exchange. She had an uncanny talent for driving off all the boys with just a few words. She made clear she was not interested in any of us. None of us were good enough for her. She was intellectually imposing, and aggressive about her superiority. 

But I was not to be driven. 

I took her abuse. 

And took it, and took it, and took it, and took it. And kept taking her abuse until she finally submitted and  acquiesced to my persistence. She had no interest in me while I had tremendous interest in her. I attached myself to her like a found dog and she finally came around to tolerating me. 

She was a straight A student and she showed it. I was a lazy careless C- student at best, and brought home Fs all the time. My parents accepted that I’m just naturally slow on the uptake, and having them accept that made academic life a whole lot easier. If I were to mix with her and her new friend who arrived later, an unsightly tall gangly girl in her awkward stage of life with red hair who looked ridiculous, then I’d have to up my game considerably. They were both much more clever than I. I asked her, “How do you get such good grades?”

She answered, “I read the text book.”


I honestly couldn’t quite believe what I just heard.

“No wait. What? You actually read that thing?” 

She answered, “Yes. And I take notes.” 

“What? Say again." I was incredulous. "You take notes? How do you even know what to write?” 

She told me that she writes everything that the Louisiana History teacher wrote on the chalkboard, a considerable amount of material each day, filling the board, that tracked very closely the material in the textbook. She confided, not bragging, just describing her practice, of re-writing all that more neatly soon as she got home. So that double writing impressed the material doubly. Then she reviewed what she wrote before testing. 

Now this double writing of notes from quick scribbles at school to neat handwriting at home blew my mind. I had no idea people studied this way on their own free will. I knew of only one other young student who did any such thing even close to that three transfers before her, a young boy from a Jewish family who studied with me quite seriously to help bring up my grades at Camp Drake, and that was too much work for me and that practice did not persist. Elaine is the girl’s name, and she totally outdid the Jewish boy in her study habits. 

It was all too much. 

I told Elaine that I carried my books back and forth and I looked at the pictures, and went so far as to read the words underneath the pictures, but that is so far as my study practice ever went. I thought the books were merely for carrying back and forth to and from school. Sort of like one of those ‘tend this egg' exercises that attempts to teach students to care for something delicate. I thought they gave us books to teach us to take care of books. Not actually read them.

She was blowing my mind all over the place.

She continued explaining, “Bobby, when it comes time for the tests you will see the test questions are the same sentences the teacher writes on the board each day with spaces for you to fill in the missing key words. The test comes from the exact same material. It’s all the same thing.  It’s the teacher’s shortcut. It’s his way of knowing his students learned what he taught. But not exactly. Not all the material, just most important bits of it”


I was dumbfounded. What tremendously advanced knowledge she imparted. How astute! Stupefied and reeling with this fresh insight I thanked her. 

But she wasn’t done explaining. “If you learn all of the points that he wrote on the chalkboard, and insert the right words into the spaces exactly as he wrote them on the board then you will get an A in class.” 

So I did. 

Thank you, Elaine Stotko, bless your precious teenaged heart. And I mean it. You imparted a very real blessing. You changed my study habits right there, girl to boy, and all of my grades improved considerably thereafter. Not one single person in that very long line of schools and teachers and fellow students has had such a profound affect on me. It’s like you’re an angel sent directly to assist me and set me aright. That is how you affected me. Permanently.

But that’s as far as I would ever get with her. 

We became buds. She and her other brighter friend tolerated me for the amusement I brought. And that was all that could happen between me and those two outrageously stuck up young women. Rather atypical officer’s daughters.

One day she told me her dog, Lady, had puppies and her very bad bratty little sister stuck pins in their fur. Elaine laughed. How sinister. When the girl is pulled away from the puppies she swears, “poopoogerts.” She was a weirdly psychotic and rather brilliant little child in her unique way.

I walked to her house to see her puppies and to meet her family. She lived just a few blocks deeper into Shady Grove. From a full block away the entire atmosphere changes to heavily scented wisteria. It’s a beautiful and overpowering perfume. The strong somewhat fruity floral aroma emanated from a huge vine that crawled up the pecan tree in Elaine’s family’s backyard and strangled the tree to death leaving behind dead wood as armature in the shape of gnarly pecan tree for the most fantastic wisteria I’d ever see with floral clusters hanging as thousands of clumps of grapes. It was overwhelmingly beautiful by sight and by smell. The family was devoted to straightening out the youngest girl between the fits of laughter she brought them to, and their amazement for her un-girlish interests, like catching bugs and her constant fascinating imaginative hijinks and her destruction. 

I learned her father was a major at the base, her mother a genuine beauty and she had a brother who is  my age although I was in Elaine’s age group of school classes. Her brother, Eddy, turned out over time to be more of a friend to me through our exploration and other nefarious activities than Elaine was for my studying. We were interested in doing similar things. The trouble we were looking to get up to matched. So we explored the area’s richness, beyond the air base, one of the largest in the United States, home of American B-52 bombers, itself rich in exploration treasures. Very real explorative treasure in things like crashed aircraft and in nature like catching crawdads and seeing alligators, fishing in lakes,  and unlimited birds including pelicans and storks, along with the odd armadillos. 

We stole lead weights that balanced people’s automobile tires, melted the lead using our Fright Factory toy intended for plastic goop. Set the Fright Factory skulls on the railroad tracks and smashed them to smithereens standing inches from the passing trains. Then smashed coins. Spilled molten lead onto sidewalks to make bizarre splash and textured designs. 

We crossed Barksdale Boulevard, a highway actually, bought small boxes of salt peter and sulfur from the highway fast mart, and scrapped up our own charcoal briquettes to powder to make gunpowder, played with the ratio of elements to blow marbles from pipes that we stuck in the sand as mortars. We made fireworks and blew things up, as boys do. 

We walked the path past the wooden shack and marveled at its decrepitude and the thought of somebody actually living there, to get to the levy and swim in the river. Cross to the sandbar and over several returns observe the changes to the sandbars, the river, and the shores. We dug through the garbage that the river heaved up. 

“Hey, this is a rubber!” 

“No way. What?"

We decided the last pecan tree where the plantation pasture and pecan grove meet with the levy was a perfect tree for a treehouse. So we’d have to steal wood from new construction on our side of the highway boulevard. This was the trouble we brought to ourselves. This is where we learned that Eddy’s father preferred psychological discipline, “I sure am disappointed in you, Eddy.” While my father had a more brutally direct and a much noisier hands on approach to physical discipline. We discussed these two approaches to parental discipline both of us preferring each other’s father’s instead of our own father’s approach.

Our treehouse was built. A double decker. It was crap. We scrambled up to it and beyond it like monkeys. We only invited one other person up to our treehouse. A friend of mine, an obnoxious outlandish boy, the spoiled adopted son of another colonel who stayed living on base. A very odd fellow with a deformed earlobe. It really wasn’t any good for anything except you could see quite well and rather far. But nothing so distant as possible here in Colorado. The treehouse was a shabby pile of lumber and nails. We were terrible carpenters. And it was on somebody else’s property, an un-subdivided section to the onetime pecan plantation. 

We walked the path many times passing the deplorable shack as we went. Eventually a very fat black woman appeared and we struck up conversation tentatively by asking very stupid questions as children much more innocent than we actually were. 

One afternoon the woman was outside as the sun just began to set and the summer light just began to change with no drop at all in temperature, no relief from the wet heat, a rooster chased a chicken through the thicket at the edge of the flat packed dirt yard and bitting into the chicken’s neck mounted it and raped the chicken violently causing Eddy and me to laugh hysterically. We were holding our sides bent with laughter by these chickens fucking right in front of us and the lady. 

Playing the part of wide eyed credulous retard Eddy asked the lady in false childish sincerity, “What are those chickens doing?"

The lady answered in her style, “I don’t know what days doi’n but day shore is doi’n it!” Causing both of us to fall about the place laughing, at the chickens, at the situation of rank poverty, at the woman answering, at the deplorable conditions, at the way that she answered, at our insanely stupid questioning, It was too funny for us to take and we both fell in love with that woman right there. And she warmed  to us. 

Over more trips we became more brave. We both were extremely curious about the rest of her tiny farm. We wanted to see all of it. We saw, heard, and smelled pigs in a fenced muddy sty, and we could see a rabbit hutch back there, and we saw turkeys roaming around freely, and several chickens. From our point of view, although tiny, this was a proper farm. How fascinating.

We’d wandered onto her property and hypnotized her chickens and turkeys using a technique that Eddy saw on television. With an index finger we’d doodle little circles in front of one of their eyes then pull the finger away. Zonk. The chicken is hypnotized. We lined up the turkeys in hypnotized state, and grabbed chickens as they passed on the tight path and lined them up too. But the effect does not last very long. They’re all wandering around again soon enough. They have to be re-hypnotized to keep the effort going. 

Eventually we asked the woman if we can see the inside of her shack and she kindly obliged us. 

Imagine this scene. An old fat black woman living by herself. Her husband dead, her children off to Chicago, kindly inviting, or accepting, two white boys to explore the interior of her shack.

We were shocked by what we saw inside. It matched nothing we’ve seen before, nor will ever see again. Nothing in movies matches. Nothing on television. Nothing is sufficiently pathetic, because this woman actually lived here. Three rooms lined up. Entering from the back rickety busted up wooden steps, through a makeshift door, kitchen, nearest the pig sty outside, bedroom, living room, then front porch.

The kitchen implements were all old busted and rudimentary. Old stove. Old busted table. two wooden chairs. Old noisy refrigerator. Old fashion speckled enameled tin coffee pot, mismatched cooking implements, odds and ends, dishes and plates and utensils, such as donations. Then old wooden bed. Exceedingly rudimentary broken down furnishings, side table, small barely useful lamp. Then busted up old brown sofa, wooden chair. No decorations. No portraits of family. No art. Nothing extra. Very old radio. No television. No books, no games, no toys, no curios. Thin tattered curtains. To our lasting shock, her wallpaper was faded and torn newspaper comics section that looked to us like it was actually wall repair so much as design idea. We had never seen anything remotely like this.

Remove all color and trade it for sepia. Darken the scene. All of the furnishings, everything inside could have been donated by Goodwill Industries. Except worse. Every fixture. Every utensil.  Every article of clothing. Deplorable shoes. Nothing of comfort.

As boys we realized that it was no coincidence this shack is situated outside the edge of plantation cow pasture. At length through discussing what we just saw, the amazingly poor shack with life still occurring in it, the sadness that dropped upon us, with no apparent sadness from its last inhabitant, that this is where slaves went when slavery ended, to the edge of their plantation as sharecroppers. What we just saw was exactly the end of slavery. The profundity wiped us out. Where did slaves go when slavery ended? They told us in school. They went to the outside edge of plantation property, set up as they knew how, and carried on as they had minus official slavery. While still slaves in every other aspect of life and every sense economically. No security whatsoever. None. 

It flatly blew us away.

All that studying, all that memorizing Louisiana History, all that getting of As through proper study habits and through proper education, and nothing taught us more than exploring on our own and in our own childish way, that one black woman’s home. And the kindness and gentleness she extended to us in allowing it cannot be forgotten. It simply cannot be forgotten.

But that was just the beginning. 

Away from the shack, on the opposite side of the separating cow pasture, ripe and pungent with cow plops that stay wet in Louisiana humidity and buzzing with flies, the long horse stable held enduring compelling interest. Our intense curiosity combined with our boyish energy and drive along with both of our innate obnoxious military brat-ishness overcame our timidity and pulled us into the stable on the side nearest our own and most far from the red brick plantation house. You see, we have no agency of our own, this is all outside forces working upon us. We don’t look for trouble, it just happens around us. We innocently accidentally walk into it.

I heard a million times, “Why did you do that? Please, just tell us why you did that so we can understand you.” 

And thinking hard as I could in search of an acceptable answer that could make it all clear, the best I could ever do is, “I don’t know.” 

“I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know! That’s all I ever get from you! You stupid little bastard. Don’t you ever know why you do what you do?” 

Pained, “I don’t know.” 

Goddamnit, I was stupid. 

Right off the bat we discovered the most amazing thing about the stables that appear so regal and so stately as viewed from the highway. They’re pure crap inside. 

The whole place is dilapidated and really does need to be torn down. We both understood that immediately.

The bricks of construction were hollow!  We’ve never seen any such bricks. They would float. They were not like clay or cement packed into molds and fired solidly, no, they  were made of clay such as a vase, liquid clay, slip, poured into a plaster mold and held briefly but long enough to form a shell with the bulk of liquid clay poured out and reused, Then glazed, again, as a vase. The whole place was like a stack of rectangular closed vases. We discovered the bricks are hollow by rats having chewed through them and built nests inside them. The whole place was a rat infested hell hole, the bricks themselves providing perfect little individual rat apartments. 

And through the entire stable of some fifteen or so stalls there was one single horse in a stall nearest the door closest to the plantation house constructed of proper non-floating bricks. 

One old ugly dying un-groomed horse. A nag. With old nag horse implements hanging around. Explore as we might there was nothing more interesting to see. Nothing more alive except rats and spiders. Nothing more to get into. Nothing to steal.

Also nothing to stop us from coming back to expand our explorative adventures. We keep looking at that red brick house for signs of life but never saw any movement. Nobody ever peeked out a window that we noticed. No car ever drove up to the place. No door ever opened. Nobody ever called out for us to get off their property. 

We worked up the nerve to leave the stable and walk past the red brick house. Turns out the house is nothing at all as it appears. It’s built in the style of a southern plantation, it imitates a plantation’s grandeur with white painted wrought iron furniture in floral and foliage design set on the front porch for show, but that’s all the sort of crap you can pick up at Walmart if you wanted on your way home from work. It is fake. It is an imitation plantation. It could just as easily be a real estate office. It’s no larger than a modern common McMansion, all done out in very poor taste. 

But we were in for another shock.

As we explored the farm implements left to rust in the weeds dropped of at the side edge of the back yard, looking for snakes and lizards and frogs and insects, wondering how any of these farm tools worked, imagining what they were meant to do, how they were used, how did they work the land, how were animals hooked up to them, examining the very many ways we could injure or kill ourselves climbing around their rusted sharp edges and dagger like points in rows, we wondered about the row of charming little huts on the opposite far side of the back yard. They reminded us both of summer camp. Surely, they must have rented them out to visitors. It made sense. The huts pulled us into them.

We wandered across the yard to the huts to explore them. Now we’re very near to red brick house, the source of our apprehension. One word from the house and our adventures would be abruptly ended. They will most likely be backed up with some kind of firearm. We imagined all this. 

There were seven huts. Each one room. One door. No window. Each had a tiny fireplace. One hut was better than all the others. One hut was the worst of them all. They were all exactly the same originally, they each were dilapidated to varying degrees. No furniture at all. Zero indication of comfort. One could have fun in such a hut. For about five minutes. We delighted in discovering them. Oddly, the huts were made of the same strange pink hollow ceramic bricks as the stable. These huts then are considered equal with the stable. And different and lower than the house. The same material is used for these seven huts as used to house fifteen horses.  We discussed their possible utility, we thought of modern uses, when it suddenly occurred us both at the same time, not as a lightbulb going off in our mind, rather, like the dread and the heaviness and the darkness of a bucket of mud poured over our bodies, these are genuine real historic slave quarters.

The people who lived in the red brick fake southern plantation home, considered their real live human slaves equal in value to their horses. 

To this day, neither of us has recovered from that discovery, from that awareness by stepping into it, by seeing for ourselves and by imagining living there. I could cry all over again just recalling it, that moment of pure awful very real dread. 

The fat black woman in the run down three-room wooden shack came directly from one of these one-room clay slave huts. At length, we put it together by wandering and by exploring. The woman is last of the slaves of this property. Her present situation, dreadful and woefully insecure and with no rest for her working her farm and her vegetable garden, not ever, not until her last dying breath, is still improvement over this hollow clay brick hut right here where we are standing. 

The red brick house became evil in our minds. And anyone with anything to do with the property is consorting with evil. We felt our new understanding more than deduced our new comprehension. Now we have the vibes of the place. It’s set. And the vibes are pure evil. With all that academic preparation none of it prepared us emotionally. We both grew up incrementally in an instant. We both actually felt our own unhappy growth. 

But we were still boys and that didn’t stop our exploration. 

We persisted in returning to evil, for the place continued providing discoveries. Beyond all that was a barn with its wide doors open and facing all the rest of it. From the barn we could monitor everything, the back yard that held rusting implements on one side and the straight row of slave quarters on the other side and the red brick house at the front. And the barn was the most fun of all. Now, there in the barn boys can have good clean fun swinging on ropes tied to ceiling planks and playing Tarzan, yanking on ropes around pulleys, playing with tools, finding snakes, digging through hay, opening boxes of farm tools, exploring all there is to see on a real actual working farm. But a farm that is dying and near dead. A farm that is completely played out. A pecan plantation already subdivided. An old church with its graveyard that nobody visits. All that’s left of the actual farm is a few dozen head of cattle and one old tired nearly dead nag horse. A house with no movement to it. And now even those are all gone. Tiny black church, graveyard, stables, farm implements, slave quarters, barn, rundown 3-room sharecropper shack, her tiny personal farm of scant animals, subsistence garden, the fences, the path, stinking cow fly-ridden patties, all gone. Flattened, subdivided, sold, finally reconstructed, a process that’s still achingly slowly steadily progressing with the only thing left to remind of a time and a way of life transpired, a single shell of a large red brick house that holds no affection of anyone.


Sixty Grit said...

Mystic village theme song.

Withyouanon said...

And you selected the least innocuous, but most apt Street View image of the red brick house(Dec '16). I appreciate the lovely work you put into this and other posts over the years. Thinking about why it resonates,(the time jump between the prose and the images where an ugly past might 'bleed through' in the now even after 'wiping') has recalled to me the mood of the twisty suspense novel Abandon by Blake Crouch. (Not a perfect fit at all plot-wise, but recommended)