Chapter excerpted from the novel: The Boiled Peanut Dee-Fence
After breakfast one morning when I was 13, my mother said, “How would you like to ride the bus down to Granny’s this summer? Dad and I thought you were old enough to take the Greyhound to Opp, as long as you don’t have to make too many changes on route.”
When she picked me off the floor, I replied, “Are you kidding me? Shoot, I’d love to go, so when can I leave? Will Granny pick me up? What's the story?”
“I’ll get the scoop from Greyhound and check with Granny to make sure you are picked up regardless of where the bus stops. You leave this Saturday, right after school lets out for the summer. I know you can’t wait to see Rego, Aunt Evelyn, Uncle Johnny, Daddy Dean and Granny. The sooner you leave the more time you’ll have in Opp.”
My heart was in my throat and I couldn’t believe my own ears. For Mom and Dad to grant this much freedom had to say one of two things, or both: They trusted me enough to allow this solo journey, or they wanted to get me the hell out of Bethesda, as soon as possible. Can’t for the life of me understand why they didn’t just fly me down to Montgomery, except for the fact that Mom was terrified of flying. So I had my bags packed in about fifteen minutes after hearing this marvelous, too good to be true, proposition. I packed my suitcase, unpacked it, and repacked it, again and again. Got all of my comics ready to go. Made sure I had my Levis, tee shirts, tennis shoes and BVD’s. And a toothbrush. Didn’t need a hairbrush…had a crew cut. I’d wait until I reached Opp before buying what would become my basic wardrobe for three months—a bathing suit.
Couldn’t sleep that night and I didn’t put away much in the way of breakfast because my stomach was nervous. The big day wouldn’t be here for another twenty-four hours, so there was still a lot of time to contemplate the adventure of my measly lifetime. The journey through the southern countryside and the small towns in Dixie that eventually lead to Opp, my favorite place in the whole world.
Was I going to miss my so-called friend Chuck, and the rest of the gang from school? Not likely. Being a Navy Junior and moving from town to town every two or three years, I didn’t have many friends, and Chuck was my only friend in Bethesda, that is if you could call him that. I mean, the guy stole my prized baseball glove, scratched up the back, changed some of the lacing, and then had the audacity to say that it was his. What kind of friend would steal his best friend’s baseball glove?
Anyway, I began counting the hours until Mom drove me down to buy the ticket. Apprehensive? Yes! Nervous? No. Excited? To the max! Mom made sure that I looked presentable in some new clothes she bought just for the trip because, as always, we didn’t want the general public to get the idea that Panky Miller was ill-bred.
“Panky, I’ll be warming up the Buick, so get your bags and I’ll see you in the car. Hurry it up. Jerry is in the backyard so why don’t you go and say goodbye to him. He’ll miss you so much this summer.”
My dog, Jerry, a wire-haired fox terrier, was the apple of my eye. Jerry was, undoubtedly, my very best friend, always doing his own thing, in his shy way. I was going to miss him, but we were used to going our separate ways. I wasn’t aware at the time that, unfortunately, this would be our last few minutes together because Jerry would meet his demise in the heavy traffic on Georgetown Road during the next couple of weeks. I didn’t hear about his death until I returned from Opp. My folks didn’t think I could handle the news while on vacation. When I heard, I must have cried for days. My best friend had left me forever. I don’t have a vivid recollection of Jerry that last time we were together.
“Mom, how much money will I have on the bus? And how long is the trip? Will I be spending the night on the bus?”
“I’ll give you twenty dollars for food and emergencies. Don’t spend it all at your first stop or it’ll be a mighty long and hungry trip for you, son. A word of advice: Try not to eat anything fishy or greasy so it won’t upset your stomach, and you can call me collect on the phone if you have an emergency. Just ask the driver to help you. I’ll call Granny with the route number, and the time it will arrive, so you won’t have to worry.”
Can you imagine how I felt walking into the main Greyhound terminal in downtown Washington, D.C. in 1954? It was one scary experience. If you took every form of mankind imaginable, they would eventually stroll into that bus station, fat, thin, black, brown, white, rich, poor, well-groomed, slobs, fashionable perfumes, body odor, sober, drunk, young and old. All walks of life from every corner of the globe. Everything I had been taught about sociology and geography was being put to the test today. Here I stood, lily white, young, innocent, very, very Catholic, the original preppie, as the ticket master asked, “Where are you headed, young man?”
“Opp, Alabama, sir, to see my grandparents and cousins for the summer.”
“Here’s your ticket. Your mother can escort you out onto the bus ramp heading for Atlanta.”
At last, the final few minutes, as we headed towards the gate where the ominous transports were parked.
“Sir, are you the driver of this bus?”
“Yes ma’am, would you like for me to keep an eye on this young man during the trip? He can sit right behind me so we can talk, and he’ll be just fine. I do this every day and most folks seem to have a real good time on my trips. What’s your name, son?”
“Panky Miller, and I’m heading for Opp, Alabama. Does this bus go that far?”
“No, we go as far as Atlanta. Then you’ll have to change buses to Trailways, and maybe change again in Montgomery. I’ll check your bag and you can put your carry-on with your magazines in the overhead rack. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”
Ten minutes to say goodbye and contemplate this excursion across America. What a rush I was getting from all this excitement. It was as if I had broken the tie that binds and had reached freedom at last. Let’s get this bus on the road! After hugs and kisses from Mom, I boarded the blue-white turkey, otherwise known as the Greyhound, and sank into my oversized, fully-adjustable, reclining seat directly behind the driver. As he closed the big swinging front door, I waved goodbye to Mom for the last time and we rolled out of the parking lot. What a view! High up of the streets, over the tops of the cars, you could see things as never before. Nothing to block your vision. And the air conditioning was fabulous. We didn’t have the luxury of that amenity in either house or car.
Unless you have traveled by bus, you most likely have never really seen the people or the country. Can’t watch all of those people and scenery if you’re driving—too much concentration on keeping the car on the road. And flying removes you completely from the reality of travel. The bus, however, provides you with the opportunity to witness and experience travel at its best. Travel with a capital T.
Some folks say that travel by air shrinks the time when, in fact, it really shrinks the people. When you fly, you don’t have the opportunity to learn about the various cultures, languages, dialects, smells and sounds. And the changing of the clouds, the temperature, the humidity, all of those things that alert our senses to new experiences. Flying diminishes our capacity to expand our horizons.
Talk about the sights. Here we were passing the streetcars, the fabulous monuments and government buildings, the Little Tavern cafes that I frequented every day after school, the beautiful tree-lined streets of Capitol Hill, and the other surrounding neighborhoods of Washington.
By the time we were crossing into Virginia, the passengers began to relax and started conversations with people sitting in adjacent seats. This period in our history was when black men and women were required by law to sit in the very back of the bus, and were not to fraternize with the white passengers. “To the back of the bus, boy,” was heard much too often. This was also an era when smoking cigarettes was in vogue and almost everyone on board, except for a few of the ladies, took out their Pall Malls, Camels or Picayunes and lit up. The smoke mixed with the air conditioning and the effect of that was very unpleasant. Today it wouldn’t be tolerated, but we’re going back to the days when an individual’s health was relative to other issues deemed more significant, like a good puff.
What do you miss if you travel by plane? On a bus, all of the panoramas are opened, not only to your vision but also to your imagination. When you travel past the monuments, such as the one named in honor of George, or Abraham, or of the battle of Iwo Jima, your mind begins to play tricks. You begin to reenact the battles of Concord, the crossing of the Delaware, the Yankee victory at Appomattox, and the Japanese retreating from the beaches in the South Pacific.
The streets whizzed by and soon we were out in the wide-open country bound for all points South, through Tyson's Corner, down towards Richmond and Charlottesville. The names of the towns were familiar…Manassas, Mt. Vernon, Falls Church, Bull Run, Quantico. Counting telephone poles was another easy way to pass the time when you were tired of talking with your seatmate about school, hobbies or family.
The thought of a nap was ridiculous. My nervous energy prevented such a luxury. So I was constantly looking out the window just to while the time away. Did you know that state laws require buses to stop at all railroad crossings? And I mean every crossing, from Maine to Miami, from Norfolk to Newport Beach. Do you have any idea of how many railroad crossings exist in this great land of ours? All you have to do is ride the bus cross-country to understand why the bus stops about every fifteen minutes during its journey, regardless of how long the route actually takes. For example, if your travel time is twenty-four hours, you will stop at least ninety-six times plus the numerous times for passengers who are standing by the highway to board, plus the red lights, plus the scheduled stops. By the time you arrive at the final destination, you have heard the air brakes of the bus at least a thousand times, and you will never forget the smell of burning asbestos from those brakes for the rest of your life.
My excitement was still keeping the fatigue from setting in, and I wanted to stay awake as long as possible so I wouldn’t miss anything. When the bus stopped along the country roads, I wondered who the folks boarding were. It was hard to tell with a lot of them, but if they were farm hands you knew right away. We’re talking real body odor. It was as if a green cloud followed them down the aisle!
We began to slow down in order to make our first scheduled stop at a country bus station. “Folks, we’re at Quantico, Virginia, and those disembarking here can claim their bags inside the depot. For those continuing on to Atlanta, we’ll be here thirty minutes.”
Great, just enough time to look at the trinkets and to buy a snack because I was damn hungry. It was mid-afternoon and I was dying for a hamburger and fries. Ignoring Mom’s warning, I placed my order and then wandered over to eye the girlie magazines. My hormones were activated, so I moved to the comic book section hoping it would act as an ersatz cold shower. I had just enough time to gulp down my greasy cheeseburger and fries before re-boarding.
We started building up speed. The speedometer was passing fifty miles per hour. But then our high speed was interrupted by yet another one of those familiar circular yellow road signs with the black ”X” indicating what hazard lay ahead. You guessed it. More railroad tracks and more delays.
After awhile, all of these towns, counties and states began to blur, and I no longer was aware of what state line we had crossed, whether we had left Virginia for North Carolina, South Carolina or Tennessee. The humming of the tires along the blacktop and the humming of the telephone poles that we sped by rang in my ears constantly.
The countryside was typically eastern, southern and rural with the all-too-familiar Kudzu vine encompassing everything in its path. This green ivy-like plant was developed to halt erosion in the southern soil but no one ever discovered how to restrict its growth. Eventually, the vine would cover the continent, strangling everything along the way. I must admit, however, that the vine was beautiful as it crept up the red clay banks alongside the roads with its huge leaves glistening in the sunlight, and in the luminescence of moonlight. The deep green color provided a perfect contrast to the red clay soil, the whitewashed fences of the farms, and the asphalt shoulders of the highways. Mother Nature again had done the right thing in pleasing the eye and the soul, albeit not the landowners, who had to cope with the vine’s rampant growth.
One of our scheduled stops was in Taccoa, Georgia, home of the world’s strongest man. I think his name was Paul Anderson, and all the magazines said he could lift a truck. That’s right, an entire truck as shown by the photographs in the papers, Boy’s Life, and other magazines. This was Taccoa’s claim to fame and now when I hear of that town, the first thing I think of is Paul Anderson standing with the truck on his back. As a boy weighing a maximum of eighty pounds soaking wet, I was duly impressed by anyone who could lift a truck.
“You are now entering the City of Atlanta.” So read the sign as we zipped down the highway, my pulse racing to unhealthy heights. One would have thought this was the end of the line for me but we had several more hours until we arrived in Montgomery, then another bus change to Opp. Nonetheless, we were anxious to disembark from this thing we had called home for the past twenty-four hours, and to stretch our legs. The Atlanta depot was a welcome sight and, boy, was I looking forward to a good, hot meal, with the emphasis on good. The dining experiences over the past day and night left much to be desired. I’d rather not go into the details about how horrible most of the food tasted at those depots stretching from Washington, down to Atlanta. As we wound through the street approaching downtown Atlanta, we saw the magnificent buildings, the lovely antebellum houses, and the flowering dogwood trees. Atlanta was larger in both population and geography than Washington, and had the reputation of equal sophistication. I had relatives who lived in nearby Decatur, my paternal aunt and uncle and cousins, Billy and Tommy, but it never crossed my mind to inform them of my arrival so we might visit for a few hours. So I just looked around in the shops, and took a walk down to Rich’s Department Store, the biggest and best in the South.
Thank goodness the restaurant in the bus station had good southern food. I must have devoured five pieces of delicious fried chicken, with side orders of field peas, mashed potatoes, cornbread, tomatoes sliced with onions soaked in vinegar, and other foods that I missed for nine months of the year.
I found the corner where the curios, magazines, and candy were sold. Why is it that every town has pseudo-silk pillowcases depicting local heroes, monuments or natural wonders? On top of that, someone had the audacity to add gold fringe along the borders. We’re talking ugly, and I can’t imagine anyone who would buy these souvenirs, but some people obviously do or they wouldn’t stay in business. And the ceramic teepees which have Atlanta, or Stone Mountain, or the Cyclorama painted on the exterior: What in hell does Atlanta have to do with a ceramic Indian teepee, I ask you? All across America these souvenirs were for sale and I have yet to see anyone buy a single one. A mystery of the cosmos, indeed. Of course, I could always buy a thimble for Granny made of some cheap metal alloy with some building, like the capitol dome, embossed on the circumference. Lordy, there wasn’t one single thing left to buy her, only a crummy postcard.
Back on the bus and on our way to Montgomery, “The Cradle of the Confederacy,” Time on route…four and one-half hours, estimated, as we bade farewell to Atlanta, and the magnificent countryside was, once again, our own personal panorama. We stopped in towns like Fayetteville, Newnan, Pine Mountain, La Grange, Opelika, Auburn and Tuskegee as the topography went from flat to hilly to mountainous back to the plains of Alabama. Every small hamlet, every railroad crossing, every bus depot, every country store, every town water tank, every shanty and farmhouse had its own personal signature, albeit they were identified as “southern” in character. And more and more humming down that blacktop passing the endless parallel lines of telephone poles converging into a point over the horizon. Field after field of cotton waiting to be picked juxtaposed with tall yellow corn burning in the heat of the southern sun, rows of soybeans that eventually became an ingredient in almost everything we consumed or applied to our bodies. And peanuts, my heavens, peanuts that were the staple of America. We ate them roasted, creamed into butter, boiled and ground. My favorite of all the crops grown in this region, however, was sugarcane. I can’t think of a more delicious sweet than sucking the sugar right from the stalk while spitting the husks onto the ground. Messy and uncouth, but damn good.
Shortly after three o’clock, we arrived at the Montgomery depot just in time to catch the last Trailways bus heading south towards the Gulf of Mexico, and Opp, my destination. I grabbed my bags and made certain that the bus I was boarding was the right one. “Sir, is this the bus to Opp?”
The driver said, “Sure is, sonny, and you’re not a minute too soon. That bus from Atlanta almost made you late enough to miss this bus, which would have meant you’d have had to catch another one tomorrow.”
Butterflies hit my stomach! What would I have done if I’d missed that bus to Opp? Spend the night on a bench in the depot? Walk the streets of Montgomery all night long and cook breakfast with the hoboes in the train yard? I was extremely thankful that I was able to make that bus.
Throughout this portion of my trip, I had the luxury of sitting alone and not having to worry about making conversation with my fellow travelers for hours on end. This situation was about to change because the bus was going to have a full contingency of passengers and the seat adjacent to mine was one of the few still vacant. One of the last passengers to board was a man, probably in his late twenties, red hair, red freckles, weathered skin, crow’s feet ‘round his eyes, a cowboy-style plaid shirt, Levis, boots…and only one eye. Only one eye! Where everyone had two eyes, he had just one and the other socket was missing an eyeball! Naturally, he headed straight for me and asked, “This seat taken, boy?”
I tried my dammedest not to stare, to regain my composure, and to reply unemotionally, “No sir, it’s all yours.”
He threw his duffel bag in the top overhead rack, sat down and, after a few minutes, asked where I was from and where I was headed. My parents always taught me it was impolite to stare at people but, in this case, I couldn’t help it.
“I live in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, and I’m heading down to Opp, to spend the summer with my relatives. This is my first bus trip alone and I’ve been traveling since yesterday morning. Where are you from, and where are you going?”
“I’m heading down to Florida, to work in the fields. My family has a farm and it’s time for the harvest, so I’m going down to help ‘em. I’ve been through Opp many times on my way to Kinston, where I have kinfolk. Do you know where that is?”
“Sure do, and the man who bought my granddaddy’s drugstore is from Kinston. I usually get to spend the summers with my grandparents and my cousins, but sometimes we get transferred too far away for me to visit. My daddy’s a Naval officer, so we travel a lot. I really look forward to coming down to Opp, so I can swim every day, go to the matinees, and eat lots of great food cooked by Gladdy Mae, my granny’s maid.”
This was my life’s story. Didn’t want to talk about school, ‘cause I hated school. Didn’t want to talk about my friends ‘cause they weren’t really my true friends. All I really wanted to talk about was my dog, Jerry, and my summers with my real friends, Uncle Johnny, Aunt Evelyn, cousins Rego, Stevie and Carol, and Granny and Daddy Dean.
Two hours into the trip we both dozed off. When I woke up, I could tell by the towns we were passing through that we had only ten miles to go. I began to get fidgety. Couldn’t sit still for the life of me and began to mildly hyperventilate. After traveling through five states for over twenty-four hours, I was about as excited as a boy could be. We stopped at every one of those cotton-picking railroad crossings, all stop lights, all stop signs, until those final few hundred yards that would bring us to the Opp depot.
I almost jumped out of the bus window when my neighbor with one eye said, “Panky, don’t ever forget who you are and where you’re from. You’re a smart kid with a good education and you’ve got good kinfolk to take care of you. I know that my eye scares you, but it doesn’t scare me, so try to remember how other people feel about themselves. It’s not how a person looks that makes ‘em good or bad. It is what’s inside and in their hearts that makes them good, decent folk. You remember what I told you and you’ll be all right down the road. Take care of yourself, boy.”
I looked him straight in his good eye and replied, “I sure will and you do the same. Hope you can help your family down in Florida. I see my grandmother and cousins outside now, so I’ll see you later.” I grabbed my bag and comics, and scurried down the steps as fast as I could into my grandmother’s arms amidst the shouts from Rego that he could hardly wait to go to the pool tomorrow.
Nearly thirty hours, thousands of railroad crossings, millions of telephone poles, acres of Kudzu vine, countless greasy hamburgers and Cokes, incessant humming of the bus tires and the telephone poles, numerous stops in the country for passengers, two bus changes, smelly cigarette smoke mixed with the air conditioning, several very nice and professional bus drivers, and an honest man with more vision from his one eye than most people have with two, I was home at last.
Photographs provided by author
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