Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Big Bang

This is part 1 of a true story from my childhood. Look for Part 2 in early October.
©Linda Goodman September 27, 2016
Part I
                My minister had just left our apartment after failing to convince my father that I should go to Bible Camp in the coming summer of 1960.
                “Too expensive,” Daddy said.
                “The church will pay for it,” Reverend Kelly offered.
                “Wrights do not accept charity,” my father insisted.
                Reverend Kelly knew a brick wall when he saw one, and I was glad that Daddy had said no. I knew that if I went away to camp, I would likely get homesick and cry myself to sleep, just like I always did when I spent the night with a friend who lived more than a few blocks away. As an eight-year-old child, I would have been embarrassed to have cried in front of kids I did not even know.
                With the Reverend gone, we fell into our usual Saturday night routine. Mama began popping popcorn in a skillet that she was shook over a gas burner on our stove. We children got into our pajamas and scooped handfuls of the hot, greasy popcorn that Mama had poured into a large bowl. Once we were all settled, my brothers Lee and Allen on the floor, Mama and me on the divanette, Daddy turned the TV on and sat down in his big easy chair as we all settled in to watch our favorite TV show, Gunsmoke, featuring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon.
                The episode started with Marshal Dillon walking into the Long Branch Saloon, where he was greeted by Miss Kitty, who owned the Long Branch. Clearly, Miss Kitty had a serious crush on Marshal Dillon, but he was too pig-headed to realize that he held her affection. I always thought that Miss Kitty was too good for Marshal Dillon.
                After a few minutes of chit-chat between the two of them, Chester, Marshal Dillon’s deputy, came limping (he had a bad leg) into the Long Branch to warn Marshal Dillon that some bad men were coming to town. Marshal Dillon quickly forgot all about Miss Kitty (she did not even get mad about that) and rushed out the swinging doors to look for the marauders.
                At just that moment, we heard a big bang just outside our second floor apartment. That bang was followed by another, and another, and another.
                “Somebody’s banging a big stick against the wall outside our apartment!” Brother Lee exclaimed.
                “No,” cried brother Allen, “that’s firecrackers making that noise!”
                Daddy stood up, his brow wrinkled with serious determination, and in a voice of calm authority said, “Somebody got shot."
                We forgot all about Gunsmoke.
In a matter of minutes, we heard the sirens of police cars and ambulances. I peeped out of our kitchen window and saw the Ambulance crew taking two bodies, covered with blankets stretched from head to toe, out of our building on stretchers. A third body was lying motionless on the ground just beyond our sidewalk. The streetlights made ominous shadows appear on the surrounding apartment buildings.  I had never seen a dead body before. I forced myself away from a window.
Screams and hollers filled the air as our neighbors gathered outside to see what was happening.  Policemen ordered them back into their homes and warned them to lock their doors and windows. There could be other shooters on the loose.
Miss Agnes, who lived in the apartment downstairs, called Mama on the phone. Her Husband, Mr. Guy, had been the shooter! Mama told her to calm down, that she would be right there. Daddy did not think that was a good idea, but Mama went downstairs anyway.
A few minutes later a police detective knocked on our door. He wanted to ask Daddy some questions: What did he hear? How well did he know Miss Agnes and Mr. Guy? Did he know any of the three men who had been shot?
Daddy assured him that he had no idea who had gotten shot and that Mr. Guy and Miss Agnes were fine people.
“They made us miss Gunsmoke,” I chimed in, without being asked. Daddy told me to go to my room, and I did.
Mama did not get back until after midnight. She sat down on the divanette, shaking her head in dazed confusion and began filling us in on the details. Miss Agnes had traded her cousin Red a shirt that had been Mr. Guy’s. Red, in turn, gave her a shirt in trade.
The trouble began when Red, who had given Miss Agnes a new shirt, discovered that the shirt that Miss Agnes had given him was a second hand shirt that Mr. Guy had already worn several times. Red called Agnes and said he wanted his shirt back.  She told him to pound sand.
If she had done what Red had asked, Red would not have come to her apartment with two of his scary-looking friends. Mr. Guy had just had back surgery and his back was in a cast. Red and his friends made threats, which prompted Mr. Guy to take a gun out of a drawer in the table beside him and shoot all three of them. “Guy thought they had guns because their hands were in their pockets,” Miss Agnes had told Mama through a blur of tears. “He was just trying to protect us. He didn’t want to kill nobody.”
My dad listened to Mama’s story and shook his head. “Three men dead,” he murmured, “all over a shirt that probably wasn’t worth five dollars.”
We got to bed so late that night that I did not get up in time to go to Sunday school or church the next morning. When I woke up, Daddy told me that my picture was in the paper. I picked up the paper and there, right on the front page, was a black and white picture of me looking out our kitchen window with my mouth wide open and my eyes looking like they were about to pop out of my head.  Anyone I knew who saw it would recognize me immediately.
For three years, I had kept where I lived a secret from my schoolmates. I was ashamed to be living in a rundown, roach-infested, rat ridden Apartment complex that others called an “urban slum.” Now everyone would know.
I asked Daddy if I could drop out of school.
“Third graders can’t drop out of school,” he informed me.
Then I asked him if we could move back to the mountains where I was born.
“I got a job here,” he replied. “We ain’t going nowhere.”


  1. I appreciate how easily we can slip into your stories, Linda.
    Don't we idealize the late 50's and early 60's? Such innocence, and then....well, bang!

    If that weren't enough of a lovely piece, you add more layers!

    Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thanks for reading. It is the responses that I get from my readers that keep this blog going.

    2. Linda, thank-you. The disconnect between the warm ritual family scene, and the insanity of what was happening outside your door is palatable. As a memory that supports the banning of side arms, little is more powerful than your father's observation: “Three men dead,” he murmured, “all over a shirt that probably wasn’t worth five dollars.”

      Now, we all want to know how the experience resonated within you and your life, both in and out of school.

    3. I am posting part 2 today. Thanks, Judith.

  2. Ooooohhhh...the suspense grows! Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. It should be available the first week of October.

  3. Can't wait to read the rest of it. You are an amazing storyteller.

    1. Thanks for the compliment, and for reading my blog.

  4. Pertinent. The "value" of "things", violence, misunderstanding and the loss of innocence.

    1. All things that reflect even this particular time. Thanks for reading.