The Legend of Six-Toe Jones

The Legend of Six-Toe Jones

You have undoubtedly never heard of Shadrach Duvalle Jones. His memory is long forgotten, or it would be if there were anyone who had been with him when he passed. For that matter, it is unknown exactly when he left this life. Shadrach Duvalle Jones became a vapor. He simply vanished.

            There can be no doubt whatsoever that he departed from this world. He provided much evidence of his existence while alive. That evidence—rather the lack of it—testifies of his death.

            Shadrach Duvalle Jones entered life on June 23, 1903. Sufficient documentation verifies this account.

            He came to manhood during the Roaring Twenties, and he absorbed every ounce of pleasure from it. He also became quite wealthy, at least on paper. In the process, he became the antithesis of his favorite literary character from childhood, Robin Hood. Indeed, he had no scruples of ignoring or even dispossessing the poor, the down-on-his-luck man or woman. He looked down on them and showed no patience or extended no charity.

            Shadrach Duvalle Jones was a self-made man, in his eyes only successful because of his own financial prowess, his own skills, his own mental acuity. To him, he was an example for all men for all time. “Anyone who can’t make money is unworthy of help,” he thought often. He had nothing but disdain for the poor. There was no greater sin in his eyes than poverty.

            Two life-altering events changed his thinking and changed the direction of his life. The stock market crash of 1929 turned him overnight into a penniless soul. Initially, he assumed he would make it all back in a short time. That proved fruitless, of course. His fall back plan was to return to the family homestead in Oklahoma and temporarily return to farming, a vocation he loathed, yet found necessary.

            The Dust Bowl sealed the fate of the family farm, so for the first time in his life, Shadrach Duvalle Jones found himself homeless, unemployed, destitute, and growing increasingly hopeless.

            He took to the rail, living in Hooverville shacks, moving frequently in search of employment and a steady income. Over time, he began to understand the mindset of those like him. Introspection informed him he had been wrong in judging the poor. He felt ashamed for his own want, but more so for the cruel ways he had treated and thought about the poor. He vowed somehow to make amends.

            Shadrach Duvalle Jones grew increasingly bitter. His despair grew along with compassion for others. He gradually learned to hate those with whom he had previously associated, especially those who retained their wealth after the Crash. They simply had been lucky. And they still, as far as he could discern, showed no compassion for the poor.

            Shadrach put together a tentative plan to start to set things right. The wealthy would be his target. The downtrodden would be his beneficiaries.

            He commenced b jumping on a train—as a non-paying passenger in a boxcar—to New York City. This provided him with a huge field to harvest. Two nights after he arrived, he broke into the opulent home of an investor with whom he had done business. His purpose was simply to burglarize the place. Something fractured in his psyche once inside the residence. The owner and his wife were present and asleep, and after bagging up the stolen booty, Shadrach stealthily crept into the master bedroom, pulled the covers from of the sleepers’ feet, and calmly cut of the man’s pinky toe with a bolt cutter he had brought. He fled without being recognized.

            To demonstrate the condition of his tortured mind, Shadrach, upon returning to a shack where he had taken temporary residence, struck the detached toe on a chain he always wore around his neck. It had great sentimental value, having belonged to his mother’s mother.

            He took the proceeds from the burglary and gave them to other homeless dwellers nearby. Having received an abundance of gratefulness from the recipients of his generosity, and also getting ample mental and emotional satisfaction from the execution of his crime, Shadrach embarked on an ambitious plan to produce greater results. He duplicated his first feat, and then he left another larger city, where he performed the same act. He never stayed in a location for more than one burglary, endeavoring to spread the bounty around as much as possible. Each time for the first six episodes, he extracted a toe from the victims and strung the toe around his neck on the chain.

            Because of incessant moving about the country, authorities were never able to catch up with him or predict his next action. The poor always knew when he was in town, however. He never disappointed them, either. “Six Toe’s here,” was the whisper in the community of the lowest rank. He wore the chain always, but never visibly when not around his own kind.

            Some in the poorest sectors say he died in Kansas City. Others tell it as New Orleans. In most large cities, the poorest believe he died there. No one knows for sure. The only certainty is that at some definite point, Six-Toe Jones quit contributing to their needs. Most people believe it was just after the end of World War II.

            The chain with the toes was never located. Neither was his grave if there was one. Some people have hypothesized that Six-Toe Jones, the legend, never existed, just a man named Shadrach Duvalle Jones, who disappeared after the start of the Great Depression.

Safari – The Elusive Napkindebeest

While visiting a state park recently, I deposited myself on a bench while my wife went inside a small “mercantile” to purchase some dish towels. After a short while, another man approached the bench, requested permission to sit on the other end, which I granted, and together we watched his wife join mine.

Living in the Midwest, small talk comes easily, and in less than two minutes we had commenced on a conversation that encompassed the weather, our children, our grandchildren, the latest hot-button topic on the news, and of course, our wives. Towards the end of our discussions, a very upright, impeccably-dressed man walked past us.

“See that man?” inquired my new friend.

“Sure. What about him?” I asked.

“I think he’s counting rocks on the sidewalk, or blades of grass. At any rate, he’s calculating something in his head. Know what I mean?”

I chuckled. “Yep, I believe I do. Accountant?”

“Darn right. No doubt. Reminds me of an accountant I had at work years ago. Anthony Backus was his name. We called him Abacus. Dry as the desert at noon. No personality whatsoever. Unable to cultivate relationships. And talk about strange.”

He paused and I pondered.

“Strange?” I finally asked. “How so?”

“Well,” my new acquaintance resumed, “you know how most people have habits and routines they follow? At least many people do.”

I shook my head in the affirmative.

“Oh, you know what I mean,” he continued. “For instance, I have a routine I faithfully employ as soon as I walk in the door. First, I go directly to my office, where I get out my wallet, my keys, and my cell phone, and I put them in the exact same location on the corner of my desk. Then, I take off my shoes and put them in the same spot I always keep them. So on and so on. I’m not officially at home until I perform all my routines. I do that for a purpose, so I will never lose anything, like my keys or my wallet.”

“Yeah, I do something like that,” I replied. “Pretty routine. And you know what drives me crazy sometimes? When somebody takes it upon themselves to clean up for me. Then, I can’t find what I’m looking for.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Woe to those who mess with our stuff.”

“There’s one thing that absolutely drives me crazy,” I resumed, “and that’s something that happens in our kitchen table.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“Napkins,” I replied.


“Yes. It seems like there’s a place for every little item on our table. The salt, pepper, seasoned salt, hot sauces, and everything like that is always in the exact same spot, no matter when I go in the kitchen. However, if I venture in there during an off time, when we’re not sitting down to eat, and I’m getting a snack, I always have to face the task of tracking down the mobile napkin basket. One time it’s right in the middle of the table, the next time it’s down at the far end where nobody sits. Still another time it may be simply sitting in a chair. Later the same day, it may not even be at the table, but on a counter or sitting on top of our ice maker. Sometimes I give up searching and just grab a paper towel – they’re always hanging in the same place underneath a cabinet. I tell you, there’s no rhyme or reason.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I used to have t-shirts that grew legs. Sometimes I would wear them once, and then it’s like they entered the witness protection program. Never saw them or heard from them again.”

“Underwear,” I said. “Same thing. Almost got to the point where I thought I was going to have to purchase new underwear weekly.”

“Now that’s tough,” he replied.

“Fortunately, I discovered the problem. My wife loves to hang things out on the clothesline. She likes the smell of clothes dried in the fresh air. That works until someone in the neighborhood decides to burn leaves or start a small bon fire. That’s not often, though.

“When the children were young, my wife would frequently have them retrieve things from the line, a task which a couple of my children disapproved of. One day, I had to go on the roof to take care of some things – loose shingle and clean out the gutter. When I got up there, what do I find? You guessed it – underwear. Seems one child in particular so disliked bringing in the laundry that he would just toss items up on the roof, and he loved my underwear the best.”

“I’m really curious about the napkins,” my friend said. “Have you ever had any resolution of this? Why did your wife move them around all the time?”

I shook my head back and forth.

“I’d like to say she was just in the habit of cleaning the table, and when she came to the basket of napkins, simply moved it to clean. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense, for why wouldn’t other things be mobile as well? But it’s just the napkins. Sadly, the only conclusion I come to is, she just does it to aggravate me. I haven’t said anything about it for a long time. It’s not worth the effort or potential argument. But I think she senses my frustration and just keeps on doing it. When I go into the kitchen to get a snack, sometimes I want to take a toy gun and pretend that I’m on an African safari in search of the elusive Napkindebeest. It does amuse me, though, because it appears as if they move not just every day, but multiple times per day.”

“Maybe…” he began. “No, that’s too stupid.”

“What?” I said.

He laughed at himself. “I was thinking maybe they’re doing it on their own.”

“I’ve had that thought,” I replied. “More than once.”

At this moment, each of our wives came out the door, chatting. They commented on our being involved in a discussion as well. Each family was staying at the inn, and we made plans to enjoy dinner together that night.

“Hopefully we won’t have to search for napkins,” I said so that he could hear, but my wife couldn’t. We both chuckled.

“One more thing,” I said. “What about the accountant?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “About the most obsessive-compulsive person I have ever encountered. He was not like you or me or any ordinary person. We deal with things. He couldn’t. Finally married, but it wasn’t a good match. She was rather messy, and he couldn’t take having many things being out of place. He eventually tried to poison her. Divorce wasn’t enough for him. He had to eliminate this gene pool pollutant – his wife—from all living creatures. He believed he was in the right and was doing a service to humanity. He’s been in prison for eight years.”

Jeff’s Leap from Cowardice to Bravery

Note: this story originates from a Creative Writing class I taught for middle school students. Its object was to identify conflicts. There are at least 4 conflicts able to be easily identified.

We told Jeff it was too far. There was no way he could make it. Jimmy Landers told him. Marc Coomer told him. I was at the point of tears, begging him not to try. Even Monte Sidebottom, the one boy who cared for no one, told him it was impossible.

“Please, Richard,” the tears were streaming down my face. If you miss…you’ll…you’ll…”

Jeff looked down at me from the tree limb at least 40 feet off the ground. He smiled slightly.

“You think if I miss, I’ll die?” he said. “That’s what it looks like from here. I suppose you’re right. What’s life, though, without chances? The people who do the most are the chance takers.”

There are certain moments that carve images and memories into our brains like a wood burning set. For the remainder of our lives, when we think of those moments, we replay the event. Whenever we go to the physical place where it happened, we replay the event. Smells, sights, sounds, the weather, and the various other parts of the moment make us replay the event. It is indelible.

For Jimmy, Marc, Monte, and me, this event became the fulcrum of our lives. Everything from this point revolved around it. No matter how much we have tried to remove ourselves from it, we just went in a circle and ended up at the same place.

Monte Sidebottom is more to blame than anyone else. His incessant taunting and teasing of Jeff over weeks or months drove Jeff to the top of that tree. When Monte had made fun of Jeff and told him he was nothing more than a momma’s boy earlier that day, and that he was even afraid of his own shadow and let his momma take care of everything for him, that’s what pushed Jeff to climb to the top. He wanted to prove he was not a coward, simply nothing else.

True, Jeff came up with the idea himself, not Monte, but Monte drove him to it. At heart, Monte was a bully, and he enjoyed watching people suffer.

There was a legend among the neighborhood boys that someone had climbed to the top of the same tree years previously and had leaped from one of the highest branches to the roof of what used to be Hodge’s Drugstore, but was now an “antiques” store filled with junk. None of the floors above the first floor were used anymore. The building was four stories high.

Although none of us had ever contemplated such a foolhardy thing, Jeff suddenly announced this particular day, after goading by Monte, that he was going to prove his bravery in a way no other boy had done in years. He was a small, cute little boy, usually shy around strangers, and soft-spoken, even around us. A small birth mark on his neck stood out. When he explained that he was going to make the leap from the tree to the roof, everyone told him not to do it.

It was no use. He began his ascent up the tree, slowly weaving his way through branches. Twice he looked down at us, and each time I believe he nearly talked himself out of continuing. Monte did not make fun of him now. I thought I saw traces of fear on Monte’s face. Certainly, he understood that if anything happened to Jeff, he would be the one people would blame.

Near the top he came. All of us were yelling at him, begging him to stop. Jeff perched on a limb. He was calculating the distance and how much effort he would have to give.

Now bawling, I frantically yelled one last time, something Jeff ignored, just as he had ignored all our pleas. I turned and ran. Not because I was fearful of watching, but because I wanted to get some adult help, someone to talk Jeff out of this leap to death. Monte called me. I did not hear all he said, but there was fear in his voice.

I ran down the street and around the corner to Mr. Stevenson’s house, where I pounded on the door. Mr. Stevenson answered—he was always home during the day—looked quizzically at me, deduced the gravity of the situation after I spouted some incoherent words, and he said, “Take me to him.”

When we got in view, Jimmy and Marc were standing next to the building, wailing great sobs. Monte was nowhere to be seen. As we got closer, we could also see Jeff’s broken body on the ground. Mr. Stevenson somehow summoned help. Police and an ambulance came, but it was no use.

Jimmy, Marc, and I rarely see each other anymore. We never quit being friends after that day, but we also never spent time together like we had in the past. I do not know what became of Monte. His family must have moved out of town. I have not seen him in more than 30 years.

Jeff had proven he was not a coward, but that act that provided the proof removed any reason for proving it. In finality, all it did was condemn Jimmy, Marc, and me—and I suppose Monte—to a lifetime of horror and regret. What a terrible thing for eleven-year-olds to have to witness.


Ten Pin Smithers

I stopped in a small town near Akron, Ohio, to chance a lunch in a small diner along the main street. The diner was situated next to a bowling alley, and outside of it, right along the street, was a statue. Having to walk past the statue, I became interested in it, for it was a man, down on his knees, his hands over his eyes, and in front of him was a lone bowling pin. I read the plaque at the base of the statue. It read, “Dedicated to Ten Pin Smithers and His Almost Perfect Game. January 9, 1974.”

I chuckled, shortly after which I heard a voice. I turned and saw an older man with short hair and glasses sitting on a bench just a few feet from the statue.

“Bet you never heard of Tin Pin Smithers before, did you?” he asked.

“No, can’t say I ever have,” I replied. “This statue seems a little odd, though.”

“Ten Pin Smithers,” the man said. “If you’ve got a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you his story. It’s rather sad.”

A story. Just what I wanted, and right in my line of work, which is reporting human interest stories for the newspaper and a local online magazine site back home. This was the reason of my trip. I was looking for something interesting.

“OK,” I said, “Mind if I sit down beside you?”

He jumped right in as I was finding a seat.

“Back in ’74, as the plaque says, a company was staging a bowling tournament right here,” He pointed over his shoulder to the bowling alley. “A hundred dollars to the winner, but there was a huge bonus if anyone bowled a perfect game. You know what a perfect game is, don’t you? Twelve strikes in a row for the game and a perfect 300 score. Worth a million dollars. A million dollars.

“Ten Pin Smithers had been home from Vietnam for about a year, and he had found getting back into society challenging. He had some emotional issues from Vietnam, plus he couldn’t find a job. However, he loved to bowl, and he was pretty good at it. So, he entered the tournament. All he really hoped for was winning the hundred dollars. At worst, second place, which was fifty dollars.

“Well, he made it all the way to the championship match. The place was packed, and the entire thing was being recorded so it could be shown on TV. His opponent was some out-of-town guy named Larkin, or Larabee, or something like that. Guy had a real unusual delivery when he bowled, and every time he released the ball he yelled out, ‘Come home to Papa!’ He wasn’t much of a bowler, though somehow he managed to make it to the championship.

“The final match was over pretty quickly. Larkin or Larabee was awful, while Ten Pin rolled strike after strike. The excitement grew, the tension grew, the crowd got real excited, but that didn’t seem to bother Ten Pin. When it was his turn to bowl, he calmly took his bowling ball, lined it up, and rolled it down the alley. Like I said, strike after strike.

“In fact, his first eleven rolls were strikes. He had just one roll left in the game, and if he got a strike there, he would win the million dollars. Everybody was cheering for him. Still, he did not appear nervous. The last roll, he did the same as all the others, calmly lining up his shot, and then he rolled it down the alley. It appeared to be a perfect hit, right in the pocket. Wouldn’t you know it, though? The six pin, which is supposed to knock down the ten pin, went around the ten pin and left it standing, the only pin left.

“That statue you see there? That’s the exact representation of Ten Pin Smithers when he lost that million dollars. Just dropped down on his knees, put his hands over his face, and finally ended up staring at that lone pin still standing.

“People always wondered how that affected his life. How would his life have been different? He remained here, but has been obscure ever since. Seldom talks to people about it. Seems to have no regrets. Says it’s the best memory of his life. For once, he was in the spotlight, everybody was cheering him on, and he ended up with a hundred dollars.”

The man stopped speaking. I got up, thanked him, and told him I was going to use that story—whether it was true or not—in the next column I wrote. He said that was fine with him. He didn’t think anyone would object. I asked him if Tin Pin Smithers was still around.

“Yeah, he’s around somewhere,” he said. “You might be able to find him if you ask around. That was 45, 46 years ago. He’d be in his upper sixties by now. Doesn’t look anything like the statue anymore.”

He wished me a good day, rose from the bench, and started walking towards the bowling alley door. When he was about 20 feet from the door, a man came out and yelled to him, “Hey, Ten Pin, lane number 7 has a problem. Could you go back and fix it?”

Mr. Cartwright and the Cat

mountain lion

Three houses down from us lived an old, ornery man that none of the neighborhood boys would talk to or even approach. The rumor was that he kept a loaded shotgun standing in a corner of the porch, and that he had promised he would shoot any child who stepped a foot on his property. There was a lot of wooded area behind his land, and we liked to play there when possible. 

A crumbling fireplace chimney adorned one end of the ramshackle place. Every boy in town at one time or another had attempted to throw large stones into the leaning brick structure.  

My brother and I walked to his place, intending to do what everyone else had failed at miserably over the years. This day when we arrived, however, we heard the sound of a ringing phone emanating from inside the house. The ringing was nonstop, and we did not see our nemesis, Mr. Cartwright. 

After throwing a few rocks, we heard a faint cry coming from the porch, and then what sounded like a growl. 

“Sounds like he’s hurt,” I said. My brother agreed. 

“We can’t go up there,” I continued. “He’s threatened to shoot any child, remember?” Again, my brother agreed. 

The phone continued to ring. Again we heard a faint cry. 

“Sounds like something crying for help,” I said. “Can you understand it?” 

My brother could not. 

“I’m going up there,” I announced. “He may be hurt.” 

“Don’t,” replied my brother, a look of fear in his face. 

But I started into the yard. My brother did not move. 

The phone continued to ring. 

Next came a sharp growl. 

Then came another cry, and this time I could discern a little. 

“Help,” a weak voice called. “Help…me…please.” 

I moved closer. Before I saw Mr. Cartwright, I saw the cat. I believe it was a bobcat. It was huge, too big for a regular cat. It also had a giant mark on its head—maybe a scar, maybe a fresh wound, I could not tell. 

I also saw Mr. Cartwright, lying on the porch floor. The cat was sitting there beside him. It had obviously attacked Mr. Cartwright, who had blood running from his head and what parts of his body I could see. 

I stopped dead in my tracks. Then I turned and ran back to my brother. 

“Give me as many rocks as you can,” I said. “And then go back and get some help. Get some rags as well. Mr. Cartwright is hurt.” 

My brother stood motionless, fear festering in his eyes. 

“Now!” I yelled. “Rocks! Help!” 

I put as many rocks in my pockets as I could carry, and then I slowly approached. 

The phone still rang. The cat was still there. Mr. Cartwright still cried out feebly for help every once in a while. 

I pulled the biggest rock from my pocket that I could, took aim at the cat, and I hurled as hard as I could. It went wide to the left, but it startled the cat momentarily. It looked at me menacingly. 

I threw three more, and I was finding the range. 

A glancing blow to the side made the cat take off, but he was not happy about it. He growled numerous times. 

I made it to Mr. Cartwright. He did not seem to be much aware of who I was or of anything else going on. However, he asked me to answer the phone. He said it was bothering him immensely. 

I went inside. I expected some creepy old place, but it was a normal house. It was a house a man lived in alone. There were not many decorations in it, kind of plain. 

I answered the phone, and the voice at the other end said, “Where’s my dad? Is he okay? I’ve been trying to call him for over an hour, and he hasn’t answered.” 

I explained as best as I could what I believed had happened. The voice at the other end—it was a woman’s voice—said she would be there quickly. 

My parents arrived shortly thereafter, and we took care of Mr. Cartwright. His daughter also arrived in about half an hour. 

Mr. Cartwright recovered, and fortunately for him, the big cat was also caught and killed and tested for rabies, which it did not have. 

His daughter told me that she was told I had probably saved his life, and that the cat had the intention of killing her father. She thanked me profusely. 

None of the neighborhood boys was ever allowed on Mr. Cartwright’s property even after that. None, that is, except for me. He did not know how to act around kids, though. He was really not very nice even to me. 

When I got into my teenage years, I seldom went to his property; likewise, he never sought me out. 

When he died, I attended his funeral. I did not cry. We were never close. 

However, he left me twenty-five dollars and a shotgun in his will. 

I made up my mind before I became an adult that I did not want to be like Mr. Cartwright. I figured it would be a really hard life not to like anyone and not to be friendly towards people. 

I guess that is really the life lesson I learned from associating with him. I am grateful for that. Still, I felt sorry for him, once I realized what a lonely person he had to have been. And for whatever reason, how he was bitter about something, something he never shared with me. 

I think back about his life. I am glad I saved it because it was the right thing to do. But I have wondered often since that time whether it was worth saving. It does not seem like it did him much good. 


Being led around with a hook in the mouth


As is my wont, I took an extended drive through the nearby rural areas of my state recently. Having a need to answer the call of nature and fill up the tank with gasoline, I stopped at an ancient store and gas station on the return trip. 

Upon exiting the establishment, and attempting to dust myself off and hopefully to remove the smell of the brine from the pickle barrel, I encountered three idlers on a bench just to the right of the door. Apparently, I had ignored their presence on the way inside (the call of nature being extremely loud and clear when I stopped and rushed into the store), one of them verbally accosted me. 

“Must be a city slicker,” said the man on the right end. “Too good ter even say hello to three gents. How’s it going, sonny?” he demanded. 

“Sonny?” I returned. “I bet I’m older than you. You in your fifties?” 

“Younger than that,” he replied. “Won’t be fifty for two more years.” 

The man beside him said, “Don’t be payin’ no attention to Turk. He can’t see much, deaf as a door hinge, and he’s overdue to eatin’. He can’t see you’re older’n him. Now Emerson here,” he pointed to the man on his other side, “he’s as contrary as they come, but he likes it that way.” 

I smiled. “Pardon me for being rude. It was unintentional. You see—” 

“Yeah, I seed it,” the man in the middle continued. “When it’s time to go, especially at your and my age, there’s not always a lot of time for palaverin’. Where you from?” 

I introduced myself, gave him a brief background, and shook his hand. 

“What’s up with Emerson?” I inquired. 

“He’s just that way,” said the same man. “Wasn’t like that all his life. In fact, when he was younger, he was nearly completely the oppsite. Had a bad experience. Ruined him for conversation and such.” 

“Don’t go telling my life his’try,” bellowed Emerson. “Anybody’s gonna tell my story, it’s gonna be me. I doubt if you’re in’trested, are you?” the inquiry was directed at me. 

Always looking for new fodder, I pretended to mull it over for a few seconds, then told him I would be happy to hear his story. 

“All right, but don’t be int’rupptin’ me, you hear? I’ll tell it my way. If Charlie tries to c’rrect me, don’t be payin’ him no mind.” 

Charlie was obviously the man in the middle, and apparently the most talkative of the bunch. After I agreed to Emerson’s terms, he remained silent for at least 5 minutes before commencing. 

“Well, Charlie ‘uz right,” he finally cranked it up. “I’m an ornery cuss nowadays, but up ’til my mid-twenties, I ‘uz the quietest, meekest person ’round here. Helped ever’body I could, never telled no one no when they asked. Ever’body liked me.” 

“That’s right,” said Charlie. “Nobody ever said a bad word ’bout Emerson. Never!” 

“Shut up!” Emerson snapped. “This here’s my story. Let me tell it ‘thout any intaference from you.” 

Suddenly, Turk shouted, “A woman done ‘im in, that’s all! Heartless woman. Never loved ‘im!” 

“That’s ‘nough,” Emerson turned to Turk. “Don’t ya be talkin’ ’bout the love a my life!” 

Turk drooped his head and shook a little bit. I believe the shaking was a permanent fixture, for I had noticed it previously. 

Emerson continued after a pause of another 2 minutes, “I ‘uz 20 years old when I met Doris Anne. She ‘uz the most prettiest girl ev’r born ’round here. A livin’ doll, she ‘uz. Wasn’t she beautiful, Charlie?” 

Charlie nodded agreement. 

“And wouldn’t ya know it, I fell in love ‘ith her the first time I ev’r talked to her. We were the same age, in the same class in school, but we nev’r talked then. I ‘uz a little shy, and she had her pick a boys. Don’t know why she decided ta like me. Wasn’t til a couple a years after school ‘fore she noticed me.” 

“I know why!” yelled Turk. “She wanted yer money!” 

“Well, that may be,” Emerson nodded agreement, “but she loved me. And I loved her. I did anythin’ for Doris Anne. Anythin! She wanted ta go ta a movie, I took her. She wanted ta get some new clothes, I took her. Anythin’ she wanted, I ‘uz more’n happy to get for her. 

“I tell ya, she ‘uz the sweetest thing ’round. Bes’ dancer, bes’ kisser, bes’ ever’thin’. I ‘uz in love for the only time in my life. Only time! But nev’r more! Nev’r more agin’ as long as I live. Ain’t no woman nor no man ev’r gonna tell me how ta live or talk or do anythin’ ev’r agin.” 

Emerson paused here. After a couple of minutes, I decided he had stalled his engine and I was about ready to leave, but he turned over his motor and cut right in again. 

“Ev’rbody ’round here said she led me ’round like I had a hook in my mouth, and she had a string and pulled me ev’rwhere she wanted to go. Mind you, it was true, it was. But I din’t care. I thought I knew what wuz happ’nin’, and I liked it. 

“Bein’ led by a hook in the mouth! Ev’rbody said it. Charlie said it, Turk said it, Jim Cooper said it, Harley Porter said it. Ev’rbody said it! And they ‘uz makin’ fun a me. 

“Two whole years Doris Anne and me ‘uz a couple. We ‘uz plannin’ on gettin’ married. Big plans! Church wedding with all our friens invited. Punch and cake and dancin’ after’ards. Big plans!” 

Here Emerson paused again. I opened my mouth to ask him a question, but he prevented me. 

“I said no in’truppin’ me, din’t it?” I meekly nodded and smiled a little. 

Four days b’fore the weddin’, Doris Anne decided she wanted to go fishin’. She loved to fish. That ‘uz one of the things I ‘dmired ’bout her. A country woman. 

“Well, we took off walkin’ down the streets to go the fishin’ hole. Of course, ev’rbody ‘uz yellin’, ‘Bein’ led by a hook in the mouth!’ at me. Din’t make me mad, though. Doris Anne din’t care, either. 

“We got ta the fishin’ hole and set ta fishin’. I’d caught some blue gills and a sunfish, but Doris Anne hadn’ caught nothin’. I could tell she ‘uz getting’ frustrated. She yanked in her line, checked it, and then whisked it ’round her head a couple a times, and then cast it out…or so she thought. 

“I turned ’round while she ‘uz whirlin’ the pole, and when she cast out, the hook went d’rectly inta my mouth and came out my cheek, where it got stuck.  

“Nat’rally, I reacted, got up and I hit her in the jaw with my fist. Knocked her out cold.” 

Here Emerson paused again, but I was not about to attempt to jump start the story again. The interval seemed like an eternity. I know it was over 5 minutes. 

“And that’s what happ’ned ta me, and the love a my life,” said Emerson. “Questions?” 

I jumped in, “So she left you when you hit her?” 

“No, no, no. That’s not it a’tall,” replied Emerson. “She din’t leave me. No, no! When she came to, she said she ‘uz sorry, but I told her I’d had ‘nough. 

“I told her I now un’rstood what the town mean by me bein’ led by a hook in the mouth, and if that’s what our life tagether ‘uz goin’ to be, with her draggin’ me ’round with a hook through my jaw, and her yankin’ the line ev’rytime she wanted me ta do somethin’, then I ‘uz callin’ off the wedding, and I did. Shore glad I figgered it out b’fore the wedding, and not later. 

“I made up my mind no one ‘uz going to do anythin’ like that ta me ever agin. Imagine! She led me out ta the fishin’ hole just b’fore our wedding just ta get that hook in my mouth so she could a ruled ov’r me all our lives.

“I ain’t never let anyone ever tell me what to do since then. I’m my own man, I am. I still can’t b’lieve how ignorant I ‘uz ’bout what ev’rbody meant, but I ‘uz too stupid to understan’.” 

I decided I had heard enough, and after thanking Emerson for his history, resumed my journey home. On the way, I recalled some of the students I have taught who, upon engaging with their first love, temporarily walked through life with hooks in their mouths. 


Justice and the Vandovers


The following is the prologue to a story I wrote for my 8th-grade students in 2017-2018. My students are the main characters. Obviously this is written for a middle school audience. It is a long piece, and publishing 1 chapter per week, it will take nearly half a year to post to completion. The prologue takes place 150 years ago. The rest of the story takes place today.
The posts for this story can be found on the Long Fiction page at


Justice and the Vandovers


Greg Burton


End of July, 1863, Simpson Fields, Alabama

The Confederate States of America was riding high, victory after victory secured on many fronts, with the most important ones being won by General Robert E. Lee in and around the Virginia area. Still, things were getting tight on the home front. Most men had been missing from the farms for over two years, leaving plowing, planting, growing, and harvesting crops left mainly to the women and older children who were still there. The women generally had to do this, plus attend their regular duties, such as taking care of children, managing the household, preparing food, and any of the other hundreds of daily chores they would take care of if their husbands had been there. It was a straining life, and though they endured happily for The Cause of States Rights, the grind was wearing them out physically and emotionally.

A great portion that had been saved by southern families had been taken by the Confederate government. Agents would come around monthly in search of supplies for the fighting men—food, clothing, material, chickens, hogs, cattle, items that held intrinsic value, such as gold (the main desired item), jewels, and cash. The southerners had taken their ready cash and invested in Confederate bonds. Many were afraid they would lose every penny they had if their men failed in the war, if the Yankees. The families, though, were willing to donate everything—even their last drop of blood—for Confederate victory.

As the months dragged into years, the agents had difficulty getting much else from the southern families. A family in 1863 that possessed more than one chicken felt blessed at its abundance. Cattle and hogs were almost never seen any more on the homesteads. True, some people hid these things when they knew the requisition group was heading into the area. At first, people looked upon these hoarders and hiders are disloyal citizens. Now, however, their prudence was privately being praised, and many people were unhappy with themselves that they had not done the same thing previously.

In late July of 1863 the hamlet of Simpson Fields, a place not usually marked on maps of the state, had its attention drawn to itself because of a “battle”—actually nothing more than a minor skirmish—that transpired in the limits of the town itself. There were a few casualties in the encounter.

The story was retold for years by the people who lived and fought there. As usual in incidents like these, the tale grew in scope and importance. Ten years later it may have been recalled by gentlemen sitting on the bench in front of the barbershop something like the following:

“There we were—trapped by the bluecoats. Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t retreat,” would say veteran number one.

Veteran number two would chime in with, “Thought we were all going to die. Either that or get captured and get sent to a prisoner camp in the north, where we’d be starved out, or beaten, or caught some awful disease and just died.”

“But Colonel Dunwoody came and rescued us—all except Bobby Anderson, Lucas Cadwalader, and Baxter McDrood—they all got killed during the battle,” veteran number three would add. “Terrible shame. They was good men, them boys. Colonel Dunwoody came charging in with about twenty or so men broke through the Yankee line, and we escaped.”

“Yeah, but the Yanks took the town anyway,” the first veteran would say. “We felt bad about that. Hung our heads for years. We were just overwhelmed, that’s all. Yanks had four times as many men as we did. Still, we shoulda been able to whip them.”

In reality, the skirmish lasted just over an hour. Two Union soldiers were injured, and three defenders were killed. The Yankees did occupy the town, though, just for a couple of hours, and then they left.


End of March, 1865

In a little over a week, the Civil War would be over, but there was much going on in Simpson Fields, even though it was removed far from the action transpiring in Virginia. The townspeople, now desperate for nearly everything, starving, no shoes, worn, ratty clothing, and completely void of hope, had little to sustain them, either physically or emotionally. Nerves were on edge, tempers short, and desperation ruled the day. What little food could be found was already readily shared with neighbors, but some people—people of strong character and firmly-established morals—had resorted to theft or deceptive means to obtain what they could eat. Poultry or pigs, when they could be found, needed to be guarded day and night, or else they would turn up missing at a moment’s notice.

On this windy, chilly day in March, 1865, a group from the commissary, or collectors of goods requisitioned by the Confederate government, was making one final sweep of the area, desperate for anything that could help the soldiers. Everyone knew it was too late, so the people decided to hide anything of value they still possessed. A man rode in at a gallop, waving his hat, yelling at the top of his voice.

“Saved! Saved, I tell ya! We’re all saved!”

A crowd quickly gathered in front of the court house where the man pulled up his horse. He waited until the noisy talk subsided, then he dismounted his horse and hobbled over to a tree stump where he could stand, and where everyone could hear him speak. He was missing his right leg below the knee, his left arm below the elbow, and was missing his left eye. All these losses occurred on the battlefield in the last four years.

“John Vandover’s got several wagons heading this way,” the man yelled. “They’re full of food, I tell you. Full of food. He’s got mountains of hams, crates full of chickens, he’s driving some cattle, all kinds of vegetables. Probably enough to keep us all fed until our crops come in.”

“What?” someone asked in disbelief. “Homer, where’d he get that stuff?”

Homer, the rider with the missing body parts, replied, “Says he’s kept all this stuff hidden in the woods behind his place all the time. Said the agents were not going to get any of his stuff. But he’s driving it this way. Bringing it to us!”

“Why would John Vandover bring anything to us?” someone asked. “He’s the stingiest man around. Never’s had nothing to do with people in town. Doesn’t talk to anybody. Doesn’t help out anyone. Ain’t nobody likes him, and as far as I can tell, he ain’t never liked none of us. I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it or not, it’s happening,” said Homer. “Saw the wagons myself.”

“Did ya talk to him? Did he say he’s heading this way?” another questioned.

“Yep. Talked to him myself. Said he was headin’ to town. I took off hollerin’ soon’s he said that.”

The crowd appeared convinced. Cheers went up continuously for a half hour or more, but as time passed, cheering dissipated, and looks of joy and hope turned first to anxiety, and then after another interval, to anger. The people realized they were getting no relief. John Vandover and his wagons of supplies never showed.


August, 1865

Nearly the entire town of Simpson Fields gathered in the courthouse. People stood around the perimeter after every available seat had been taken inside the courtroom. An emergency town meeting had been called. Angry voices rang for close to two hours as people shouted each other down in an attempt to speak his mind. The sheriff had deputized four men to help keep the order because he knew the meeting would be heated, and people might make rash decisions to take matters into their own hands.

The topic was John Vandover, and what the town should do concerning the supply wagons that never showed. One woman, Mrs. Elmore Paddock, claimed that her small child had died from malnutrition, and that food from the Vandover wagons would have saved the child’s life. Jonas Edmonds, an elderly man, proclaimed that he lost sight in his eye solely because of starvation, and that the eye quit working a week after Vandover’s wagons had failed to show. A young woman by the name of Stella Owens claimed that she became sterile due to lack of nourishment, and the doctor had told her that she would never be able to have children again.

Some people wanted to go to the Vandover place out the outskirts of town and settle accounts with John Vandover. First, they proposed to fire his house and buildings. Then they were going to run him out of town after tarring-and-feathering him. A few proposed sterner measures—hanging Vandover from the nearest tree on his place after destroying his property. Yet others were convinced that the only remedy to the Vandover scourge was to kill not only John Vandover, but his wife, children, and grandchildren, leaving none to pollute their town ever again.

After discussions had ceased and decisions made, town council president Alden Withers informed the crowd of the final decision.

“Seeing that John Vandover abandoned the good people of this town in their time of direst need, it is the agreed decision, by a vote of the people here, that the name of Vandover—whether it is John Vandover, his wife, children, or any descendant in ages to comes—be cursed. Never let the name Vandover pass over the lips of any resident of Simpson Fields from here to eternity. Cursed be the name Vandover. For the evil that he has done to this town, let the descendants of John Vandover forever be outcasts. Cursed be anyone from now until the end of time who would aid any Vandover. And now, with this final mention of the name Vandover, let it never be spoken again in Simpson Fields.”

The people shouted in agreement.


Ed Lowery’s dog


I went into the local restaurant for breakfast recently, and over in the Liar’s Corner sat a parliament of the local gentry, discussing the next thought that ran through someone’s mind. I arrived at the establishment just after opening, around 6:00 a.m., and the men in the corner consisted of grizzled, retired, ancient men, a couple of farmers, and some construction workers. Also, the president of the town council dropped in and took his place with them shortly after I placed my order.

I got my food and took a small table within earshot of them. I hoped to pick up some wisdom.

“Ain’t heard nothing from you all morning, Ed,” said one of the men.

“No,” returned Ed, who then stretched and yawned for a good 20 seconds or more. “Just nothing to say.”

“Something bothering you?”

“No. Only that I ain’t said hardly a dozen words in the past few weeks at home. You see, Mary left about 6 weeks ago.”

“Zat so? Sorry to hear that. Why didn’t you say something to us ‘bout it?”

Ed scratched his head, took a long draw on his coffee mug, and then he finally raised his eyes at his friends. The entire group was listening by this time.

“You all may think I’m upset, but I ain’t. I ain’t talked at home only because I’ve no one to talk to. Gets a might lonesome in the evenings.”

“Where’d she go? Do you know?” inquired the council president.

“Nah. No idea. But I ain’t concerned. Mary’ll be back sometime.”

“What do you mean, she’ll be back?” asked the first man. “You don’t know where she is, she’s been gone 6 weeks, you haven’t heard from her, but you think she’s coming back? Ed Lowery, that don’t make no sense. No sense at all.”

The rest agreed.

“I knowed a man whose wife ran off,” said one of the farmers. “She never came back. Moved to Arizona, married another man, even though she never divorced her husband, and he never heard from her again. Hope something like that don’t happen to you, Ed.”

Ed Lowery smiled meekly and shook his head.

“Only thing I know is she’ll be back, once she’s got out of her whatever she needs to get out of her. She’ll come back, and we’ll be just as happy as we’ve always been. Maybe happier.”

The men mumbled things, mostly in disagreement with Ed, and they shook their heads at each other.

“What makes you so sure she’ll be back?” asked the man who had started the conversation. “And what makes you think you’ll want her back?”

Ed smiled meekly.

“Well, I got a philosophy about such things,” he began. “A philosophy that’s worked for me all my life. Something happened to me when I was 8 years ago, and it’s kind of guided me since then.

“When I was 8, a dog wandered up onto our property. Fine dog. Mixed, but as friendly as could be. You know Harold Benson’s dog he had a few years ago? Kinda looked like that, except this one was missing part of his left ear, and he had a long scar on his left hind leg.

“He didn’t have no tags or nothing, so I decided to feed him. You know how dogs stay around where there’s food?

“Well, naturally, he stayed. Stayed for, I don’t know, maybe 9 months. Never left the property. Slept in my room, playful and happy as can be. We were inseparable companions, that’s what we were. Inseparable companions.

“Well, we got up one day as usual. We both went outside. It was summer, you know, so we spent most of our time outdoors. I went into the house to get a drink of water or something, and when I came back out, the dog—his name was Fella—he was gone. Don’t know what happened to him or where he went.

“Of course, just being 8 years old, it upset me. I cried and cried for a day or so. Then I accepted the fact that he was gone.

“Six years later, when I was 14 years old, Fella wandered up my driveway, let me know he was home, and stayed there until he died 9 years later.”

Ed paused. I suppose he thought everyone would get his point, but they didn’t. Neither did I.

“Okay,” said another construction worker. “What are you trying to say? I don’t understand.”

Ed held out his hands, apparently not believing the question.

“Fella came back. I didn’t ask him no questions, like ‘Where ya been?’ or ‘Who ya been with?’ Didn’t think it was any of my business. Only thing I cared about was that he had returned. Didn’t need no explanation.

“Gonna be the same way with Mary,” he continued. “She’ll be back some day. I don’t know when. Ain’t gonna ask her no questions, either. If’n she wants to tell me anything, I’ll listen. Regardless, I’ll be happy when she returns. In the meantime, I’ll just bide my time.”

I had not taken a single bite of my breakfast, but it was time for me to leave. I quietly left my table and dumped my breakfast in the trash can. Some day in the next 6 years I think I will return for another breakfast and get an update on Ed Lowery and his wife.

The Straw Foot, Conclusion


That evening the president summoned the pledges to the fraternity house, where he instructed them to sit on the floor. One of the fraternity members then distributed to each pledge two gallons of apple cider and two of the smelliest cigars the brothers could find.

“Your instructions are simple,” said Alex. “Smoke these cigars and drink that cider before I finish my presentation, which will last about forty-five minutes to an hour.”

Groans arose from all the pledges except Bobby Joe.

“No complaining,” continued the president. “You must prove yourself worthy to be called a member of our fraternity. Gentlemen, light up.”

Several brothers walked about the room with lighters and lit the cigars for the pledges, while another brother brought in an old-fashioned movie projector and screen and set them up. By this time most of the pledges were hacking and choking.

“I am going to give you a zoology lesson this evening,” said Alex. “We are going to study marine life. Brother Robert, would you turn out the lights and start the projector?”

Brother Robert did as instructed and the ocean appeared on the screen, shot from the deck of a ship, which rolled up and down with the huge waves.

“This was taken by a brother of one of our fraternity brothers when he was in the Navy,” said Alex. “Watch and I’ll say things as I think they need to be said.”

For approximately the next 50 minutes the pledges watched the silent movie. Over and over the ship rose and fell in the sea swells. Occasionally Alex made a brief comment, but mainly it was a silent movie. Alex failed to explain why the person had made the home movie in the first place, but for the past few years it had been used for this same purpose, and it produced the same effect each time.

One by one the pledges vomited and left the room, all that is, except for Bobby Joe. Even a few of the brothers excused themselves at times. When the lights returned he was the only pledge remaining.

“Congratulations, pledge!” shouted Alex. “You are the only pledge who has ever made it through the entire movie.”

“I have to admit,” replied Bobby Joe, “that movie was pretty dull. If you fellas wouldn’t have been nice enough to give us those cigars and cider, I probably would’ve fallen asleep.”

“Do you feel all right?” inquired Alex, looking dumbfounded.

“Yeah, I feel fine. Lucky for me I didn’t eat at the dormitory tonight like everybody else. They must’ve gotten food poisoning or something.”

All the brothers left the room shaking their heads.

The next day they met in the morning. The brothers singled out Bobby Joe because of all the pledges he was the only one not to have lost his cool yet.

“Pledge!” yelled Alex while looking directly at Bobby Joe, at which command Bobby Joe began his ritual. “Be quiet and listen to me,” interrupted the president. “Listen carefully. As you know, we are an organization devoted to the betterment of mankind. We are always looking for ways to be charitable, and we have such an opportunity before us. Are you listening?”

Bobby Joe shook his head affirmatively.

“Good. The brothers have chosen you for this job because you seem to be a good man and this will be a good test to see if you’re worthy of being a brother. As you know, this area is infested with mosquitoes. Chancellor Carter’s house seems to get them worse than any other place. So we want to do something about that, but we want it kept a secret. There’s no way we want the chancellor to know about this. Understand?”

Bobby Joe nodded.

“OK, then, here’s what we want you to do. The only thing that seems to help keep the mosquitoes out is if all the house is coated with petroleum jelly. This means doorknobs, keyholes, windows, shutters, everything. We want you to go over tonight and grease the entire house, which will save the chancellor a lot of money because a professional exterminator is expensive.

“You’re going to have to go sometime after midnight, and you’re going to have to be careful. We don’t want the chancellor to know it was this fraternity that helped him. Any questions?”

Bobby Joe had none.

“You do that and report back tomorrow afternoon,” said Alex.

When the pledges reported back the next day, everyone had heard the reports that Chancellor Carter was furious and was seeking out the individual who was responsible for the deed. The group was in high spirits and everyone patted Bobby Joe on the back and told him he had done a wonderful, helpful deed.

“What do you think?” one of the brothers asked Bobby Joe. “How do you feel?”

“Pretty swell,” answered Bobby Joe. “I never knew that by doing such a good deed that everyone would be happy, especially because no one outside of us knows.”

Pledge week continued and the pledges were forced to do numerous embarrassing things, with only Bobby Joe seemingly unaffected. He seldom said anything, but when he did the brothers laughed, and he would certainly be voted in if he could survive the final two days.

The brothers once again designed a scheme using Bobby Joe, but this one was dangerous, and if Bobby Joe were caught it would cost him his football scholarship, his enrollment at the university, and possibly even his freedom, but no one told him this.

“Bobby Joe,” said the president, “you really do want to become a member of this fraternity, don’t you?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here doing this,” Bobby Joe replied.

“OK, then, listen.” The rest of the members and pledges gathered closely. “We’ve got something for you to do that is very, very important. You absolutely cannot let anyone outside of this fraternity know about this.

“This fraternity has gotten some very bad things said about it and done to us over the past few years, mainly by the faculty. One of the worst things they’ve done is they’ve cheated some brothers out of decent grades in certain classes. In particular there is a biology professor who always fails brothers. We’ve taken complaints to the proper people, but we’ve gotten nowhere. What we need is proof that we’ve been cheated.”

“What can I do to help?” asked Bobby Joe, a puzzled look filling his face. “I’m new here. I don’t even know any professors, just football players and coaches.”

“We know, but that’s not important. You can help us without knowing any professors. What we’re wanting you to do could not only help the brothers here, but a lot more people on campus who’ve gotten bad grades from certain professors. Because you’re new here, you’re the perfect person to do it. And remember why this fraternity is here—to help people, and that’s just what you’d be doing.”

Bobby Joe sighed, while the rest snickered in suppressed sounds.

“Here’s exactly what we need you to do,” said Alex. “At the administration building they keep all the records. Everything is stored there on the main computer. We need access to that computer so we can get hold of some of those records so we can prove our case. But before we can use the computer, we need to know some passwords, and the master password list is stored in Chancellor Carter’s office, locked in a drawer. We’ve gotten hold of that key and made a duplicate. What we’re asking you to do is go in there late at night and get that list, make a copy of it, and bring it to us.”

Bobby Joe’s countenance grew perplexed.

Some of the members called Alex to the side and talked to him quietly.

“We’re thinking more about this, Alex. Some of us think this is going a little too far. We didn’t talk about actually stealing. If he gets caught, he’s dead. Probably us, too!”

“Shut up! Some of you are on probation and are likely going to get expelled at the end of the semester if we don’t get those records changed. What better time than now, when we can use this buffoon?”

The discussion continued for a few minutes, and then the group summoned Jack. They explained the situation, the obvious dangers, and their desperation, and then asked his opinion. He told them to go ahead with it, and that he would help Bobby Joe not to get caught.

“What do you think?” Alex asked Bobby Joe a few seconds later. “Are you going to help us fix this injustice?”

“I’m confused,” replied Bobby Joe. “Something doesn’t sound right about it, but you said it would help a lot of people?”

“That’s right!” yelled a brother. “A whole lot of people!”

“Then I’ll do it.”

“Excellent!” said Alex. “Report back to us tomorrow night after you’ve got the list. That’s the final night of initiation, and that will make a perfect end of things.”

The next evening Alex met Bobby Joe at the front door of the fraternity house.

Recall that even though Bobby Joe was as green as they come when he arrived on campus, he was nonetheless a good learner. He had been thinking about his future and had done some planning.

“Did you get it?” he asked excitedly.

“Yes, I have it.”

“Great! Let me have it!”

“No, wait a minute,” replied Bobby Joe. “I’ll give you this list when I’m an official member of the fraternity, not until.”


“I said I’ll give you the list after you’ve made me an official member and my initiation time is finished.”

Alex pondered and then laughed. “Oh, I see. You think I’ll take the list and then we won’t vote you in. You don’t have to worry about that. All the brothers will vote for you, that’s for sure.”

“Nope. I won’t give it up until you make me a member right here and now.”

Alex looked around at the brothers, who unanimously gave their approval.

“OK, then. Listen. I declare that you, Bobby Joe Childress, by the authority I have as fraternity president, are now an official member of Alpha Mu Mu Fraternity. Congratulations, Bobby Joe. Let me have the list.”

Bobby Joe took a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Alex, who immediately ran upstairs to his room and accessed the school’s main computer from his laptop.

“Pledges,” said a brother, “the final part of your character test is to pass through the initiation line.”

The brothers formed two parallel lines a couple of feet apart, and each member had a paddle in his hand. Each pledge was to pass through the line and receive one stroke from each member. Bobby Joe stood in the front of the line, and the brothers told him he did not have to participate, since he was already a member, but Bobby Joe insisted.

“I want to say something,” said Bobby Joe after he had persuaded them to let him run the gauntlet.

“OK, what is it? Make it quick!” one of the brothers replied.

“It’s just this. Ever since you started the pledge week, you’ve done nothing but make fun of me and insult me. You’ve told me to do things that really made me look stupid and some things that were dangerous and illegal. Well, I’m getting the last laugh.”

With that Bobby Joe Childress took off running straight at the lines. He tackled outright the first three of each side, and the others scrambled to get out of his way. It was a massacre. He grabbed some paddles and chased the brothers around the house, and after seeing how things were shaping up, the rest of the pledges joined him. When all was finished, about half of the brothers were lying around the yard, beaten and bruised, while the remainder had fled into the darkness.

The president heard the commotion and ran down the stairs, yelling to find out what was the matter. However, after viewing the scene, he, too, attempted escape, but was stopped by police who had just pulled up to the house. Also emerging from a cruiser was Chancellor Carter.

“Arrest him!” yelled Alex, pointing at Bobby Joe.

“Sorry, they didn’t come for me,” replied Bobby Joe, “but for you.”

“Me? Why? What have I done?”

“Even a person you think is a hayseed like me can only take being made fun of for so long. All this time you thought you were using me to pull your stupid pranks and to get illegal access to the school’s computers, but in reality you’ve been set up. You didn’t know this, but I have a relative here at school. He’s my uncle, Chancellor Carter.”

“Hello, young man,” said the chancellor, approaching Alex. “I believe you and me have some serious talking to do. Well, our talk may have to follow your talk with the police, but I’m sure we’ll get around to it sooner or later.”

Alex profusely sweated, unable to get a single word from his mouth.

Bobby Joe continued, “When you first told me to grease his house I went and told him. He said to pretend like I did it because the university has been looking for a way to close down this fraternity because of all the trouble it’s caused the past few years. When you wanted me to steal the passwords, that was just what my uncle wanted. They’ve been monitoring you on the computer and have recorded everything you’ve done to the records.

Alex grumbled as the police took him.

“I think I’ve reconsidered,” said Bobby Joe after Alex had walked past him. “I don’t want to become a member after all, but thanks for the invitation. You thought I was an idiot—what was the term you used the other day, a buffoon? Looks like you may be the real buffoon.”

The outcome was as expected in that the university expelled every member of the fraternity, not that it made much of a difference anyway, for most of them would have flunked out at the end of the semester. The fraternity officially disbanded, but a new fraternity formed the next year, and Bobby Joe was elected to serve as president until he graduated.

Jack, Bobby Joe’s roommate, knew of the entire situation as it unfolded and helped Bobby Joe in setting up the ones who had abused them. He served a vice-president of the fraternity under his friend.

Bobby Joe Childress, formerly a straw foot, had a brilliant college career, helping the team reach lofty heights

The Straw Foot, Part 1

This is a short story I originally wrote in 1987, but I have revised it this past weekend. It is a longer short story, so I have divided it into two sections. The second half will follow shortly.


Bobby Joe Childress was a young man of great strength and stamina, hailing from a southern state noted for its football in both the high school and college ranks. Naturally, after a stellar high school career, Bobby Joe was predestined to take his exceptional talents to the state university to help it attain higher glory. He possessed exceptional talents in blocking, running, passing, and catching, and even standing six feet seven inches tall and weighing 278 pounds, he was the fastest runner in the entire state, as far as football players were concerned.

Bobby Joe rebuffed the numerous offers from national powerhouses outside the state, knowing that if he should choose anywhere other than the state university, he may as well move from home permanently, for he would never be welcome inside its borders again, even by his own family. When it came time to leave for college, he packed his one suitcase (he came from a large, rather poor family), boarded a bus because his parents could not afford to take him there personally, and headed off to the place everyone expected him to go.

Bobby Joe Childress was a little green concerning the ways of the world, although he learned quickly. His naivety made him an easy mark for any third-rate confidence man, and his parents had concerns about his safety away from home. A teacher in his high school recognized Bobby Joe’s lack of worldly wisdom and helped guide him through his high school years without much loss, but privately this teacher referred to Bobby Joe as a straw-foot.

A simple definition for a straw-foot would be an uneducated rookie. The term originated during the American Civil War, and referred to recruits who had just come from the farm and did not know the difference between their left foot and their right foot. They were lousy soldiers during training, and drill sergeants had great difficulty teaching them to march in time or on the correct foot during the cadence. No amount of drill or punishment was able to correct this deficiency until finally, in an act of desperation, an instructor tied small bundles of hay to the recruits’ left feet and small bundles of straw to their right feet. Knowing these simple farm boys knew the difference between hay and straw if nothing else, the instructors would yell, “hay foot, straw foot, hay foot, straw foot,” and marvelously the soldiers learned how to march.

The vastness of the campus and the great numbers of people overwhelmed Bobby Joe, and he had to ask for help in finding his own dorm room. Lying on a bed was Jack Brody, and the two were perfect complements. Jack was outgoing and helped Bobby Joe in that area, while Bobby Joe helped to stabilize Jack’s life.

Even though Jack was only a first-day student, he knew every nook and cranny of the campus through frequent visits the year previously, and he was well acquainted with the social customs and nightspots in and around campus. Jack suggested they join a fraternity because he knew several members of a particular fraternity, which was having an open house starting immediately and lasting for a week.

“What’s a fraternity?” asked Bobby Joe.

“It’s a group of guys who get together and try to make life easier to handle at college,” replied Jack. “They throw parties and have fund-raising events, hook up with girls, and participate in a lot of activities, especially during football season.”

At the word “football,” Bobby Joe immediately said he was interested, so that evening they walked to the fraternity house, which was full of people, many of them carrying beer in their hands. The fraternity president spoke to them a short while later.

“Hello, Jack,” he said while shaking his hand. “I’m glad to see you came and brought a friend.” After introducing himself as Alex Murdstone, he asked Bobby Joe about himself, and then said, “Let me introduce you to the brothers.”

Bobby Joe appeared puzzled, but he followed the president into the main room, where many people stood around, talking, laughing, and shaking hands. Jack secured two glasses of punch and brought them back to Bobby Joe. For the next hour or so, they met every fraternity member present, drank punch, and listened to stories about escapades the brothers had accomplished over the years.

“What do you think?” quizzed Jack when they returned to their dorm room.

“I like them,” responded Bobby Joe.

“Do you think you’d like to join?”

“You and me? You think they’d let us?”

“Yes, I think they would. You’re a pretty important man around here, Bobby Joe. Every fraternity wants to have you.”

Bobby Joe again looked perplexed.

“What’s the matter?” asked Jack.

“I have a hard time believing they would let us join.”

“Why? I’m a friendly, ordinary guy, and you’re…well, you’re a football star.”

“Maybe, but…well, I can’t believe it.”

“Don’t you want to join?”

“Sure, I’d like to join a fraternity. I don’t understand why they would let us in, though.”

Jack went to the mirror, looking first at himself, then turning around and looking at Bobby Joe.

“What’s wrong with us? Are we odd looking? Do we look like we come from Mars? What don’t you understand?”

“We’re not related,” said Bobby Joe.


“I say we’re not related.”

“We don’t have to be related. We just join, if they’ll have us. And they’ll have us.”

“But why would that family let strangers come in and live with them?”

“What do you mean family? What family?”

“The family at the house. It’s a big family. Haven’t even seen one that big back home.”

“Bobby Joe, that’s not a family—I mean a blood relation family.”

“Well, everybody there was a brother, so they must be from the same family. Must’ve been tough on their mother to have all those boys and no girls.”

Jack laughed and explained the term brother when used in a fraternity. Bobby Joe was not embarrassed, but he was silent for a short while before saying, “I’d like to join them. I don’t have any brothers at home, just a bunch of sisters, and I’d like to know what it feels like to call someone my brother.”

The boys informed the fraternity of their decision to join, and then they were instructed to return the following Sunday afternoon for a meeting with all new potential members. There were nearly thirty others there, listening to a half-hour speech from the president, the gist of which was that they were trying to become members of an honorable social organization whose ultimate goal was to benefit mankind. Bobby Joe liked the speech, but he did not understand why Jack occasionally laughed aloud.

The president also explained that all new members had to be given a testing time, a week of initiation to ascertain if they were worthy, that was to begin the following morning and last for a week. The ones who wanted to joined, called pledges, were to report to the house before attending any classes.

After receiving instructions the next morning, Bobby Joe went to his first class, which was titled “The Olympics—Past and Present,” a standard course for first-year football players. In fact, the only students who could enroll in the class were football players, as this section was not listed in a regular student’s choices. No student ever failed “The Olympics—Past and Present,” and none ever received a grade lower than a ‘B’.

All of his classes puzzled Bobby Joe, as gridiron teammates filled each class’s roster, and likewise an assistant coach instructed each class. He wondered when he was going to get to take classes he took in high school, such as English, math, history, and science instead of the ones he took this first semester: General Nutrition 101, The Law of Gravity 100, The History of Numbers 107, Geometric Shapes 100, and of course his Olympics course.

Class convened at 9:00 a.m., but the instructor had not arrived by 9:30. Students started to leave, but then the door opened and a football assistant coach entered.

“Anyone absent, please say so now,” he announced without looking at either his roster or the number of students in the class, which contained fewer than half of the number of names on the roster. After receiving no responses, he continued, “All right, then, everyone is present this morning. Good class, gentlemen. Be on the field at 12:30 in full gear. Dismissed.”

His second class was a little different, for the students had to speak. When the instructor called upon Bobby Joe to stand and tell what position he played, Bobby Joe rose and replied, “Rolodolo humphata. Delinquo magnum. The Brotherhood of Casalidas forbids me to answer any questions.” Bobby Joe nailed the required response of the fraternity perfectly.

The instructor moved onto other students, some of whom actually gave their projected positions, after which he dismissed class.

That evening required another meeting at the fraternity house.

“This entire week you are our slaves,” said Alex. “You must not deny us any request by us. If you do, then you will be counted as unworthy to join us. We are brothers and we stick together through thick and thin.”

As Bobby Joe and Jack were leaving the house, one of the members called to them, “Pledge!”

Immediately Bobby Joe stopped in his tracks, stood at attention, placed his hand over his heart, and said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands…”

Sometimes fraternity initiation requires the pledges to do some very strange things, and to be subjected to verbal and physical abuse, a practice called hazing, which is now officially banned on most college and university campuses, but still used by some groups despite the ban. Bobby Joe and Jack got to witness this first hand as part of their initiation.

The next morning when students arrived at the dormitory cafeteria, they were greeted by Bobby Joe and Jack sitting in chairs atop two lunch tables, wearing only bikini tops and jock straps, and blowing bubbles using Mr. Magico’s Bubble Stuff. As a requirement of their initiation process, they were not allowed to offer any explanation or engage in any conversation with anyone.

However, a fraternity brother strolled into the cafeteria, and seeing them yelled, “Pledge!” Bobby Joe repeated his performance from the last time he heard the command, causing the fraternity brother to shake his head and leave them there.

The pledge business occurred to him numerous times over the course of the week, and he wrote his mother telling her that he was joining a patriotic fraternity, knowing this would make her happy.

— End of First Part —