The Fall Picnic was always held on the last Sunday in September, though no one knew exactly why. It was simply a tradition in Black Oak, a ritual as ingrained as the carnival and the spring revival. It was supposed to somehow link the coming of a new season, the beginning of the end of the harvest, and the end of baseball. It wasn't clear if all this was accomplished with one picnic, but at least the effort was made.
We shared the day with the Methodists, our friends and friendly rivals. Black Oak was too small to be divided. There were no ethnic groups, no blacks or Jews or Asians, no permanent outsiders of any variety. We were all of Anglo-Irish stock, maybe a strain or two of German blood, and everybody farmed or sold to the farmers. Every body was a Christian or claimed to be. Disagreements flared up when a Cubs fan said too much at the Tea Shoppe, or when some idiot declared John Deere to be inferior to another brand of tractor, but for the most part life was peaceful. The older boys and younger men liked to fight behind the Co-op on Saturdays, but it was more sport than anything else. A beating like the one Hank gave the Siscos was so rare that the town was still talking about it.
Individual grudges lasted a lifetime; Pappy carried more than his share. But there were no serious enemies. There was a clear social order, with the sharecroppers at the bottom and the merchants at the top, and everyone was expected to know his place. But folks got along.
The line between Baptists and Methodists was never straight and true. Their worship was slightly different, with the ritual of sprinkling little babies being their most flagrant deviation from the Scriptures, as we saw things. And they didn't meet as often, which, of course, meant that they were not as serious about their faith. Nobody met as much as us Baptists. We took great pride in constant worship. Pearl Watson, my favorite Methodist, said she'd like to be a Baptist, but that she just wasn't physically able.
Ricky told me once in private that when he left the farm he might become a Catholic because they only met once a week. I didn't know what a Catholic was, and so he tried to explain things, but Ricky on theology was a shaky discussion at best.
My mother and Gran spent more time than usual ironing our clothes that Sunday morning. And I certainly got scrubbed with more purpose. Much to my disappointment, my nose had not been broken, there was no swelling, and the cut was barely noticeable.
We had to look our very best because the Methodist ladies had slightly nicer dresses. In spite of all the fuss, I was excited and couldn't wait to get to town.
We had invited the Spruills. This was done out of a sense of friendliness and Christian concern, though I wanted to pick and choose. Tally would be welcome; the rest could stay in the front yard for all I cared. But when I surveyed their camp after breakfast, I saw little movement. Their truck had not been disconnected from the myriad of wires and ropes that held their shelters upright. "They ain't comin'," I reported to Pappy, who was studying his Sunday school lesson.
"A Painted House"
"Good," he said quietly.
The prospect of Hank milling about the picnic, grazing from table to table, gorging himself on food and looking for a fight, was not appealing.
The Mexicans really had no choice. My mother had extended an invitation to Miguel early in the week, then followed it up with a couple of gentle reminders as Sunday grew near. My father had explained to him that a special worship service would be held in Spanish, then there would be plenty of good food. They had little else to do on Sunday afternoons.
Nine of them piled into the back of our truck; only Cowboy was absent. This set my imagination on fire. Where was he and what was he doing? Where was Tally? I didn't see her in the front yard as we drove away. My heart sank as I thought of them back in the fields, hiding and doing whatever they wanted to do. Instead of going to church with us, Tally was probably sneaking around again, doing bad things. What if she now used Cowboy as her lookout while she bathed in Siler's Creek? I couldn't stand that thought, and I worried about her all the way to town.
Brother Akers, with a rare smile on his face, took the pulpit. The sanctuary was packed, and people were sitting in the aisles and standing along the back wall. The windows were open, and on the north side of the church, under a tall oak, the Mexicans were grouped together, hats off, dark heads making a sea of brown.
He welcomed our guests, our visitors from the hills, and also the Mexicans. There were a few hill people, but not many. As always, he asked them to stand and identify themselves. They were from places like Hardy, Mountain Home, and Calico Rock, and they were as spruced up as we were.
A loudspeaker had been placed in a window, so Brother Akers's words were broadcast out of the sanctuary and into the general direction of the Mexicans, where Mr. Carl Durbin picked up the words and translated them into Spanish. Mr. Durbin was a retired missionary from Jonesboro. He'd worked in Peru for thirty years among some real Indians up in the mountains, and every so often he'd come and talk to us during missions week and show us photos and slides of the strange land he'd left behind. In addition to Spanish, he also spoke an Indian dialect, and this forever fascinated me.
Mr. Durbin stood under the shade tree with Mexicans seated on the grass all around him. He wore a white suit and a white straw hat, and his voice carried back to the church with almost as much volume as old Brother Akers's did with the loudspeaker. Ricky'd once said that Mr. Durbin had a lot more sense than Brother Akers, and he'd offered this opinion over Sunday dinner and created trouble yet again. It was a sin to criticize your preacher, at least out loud.
I sat at the end of the pew, next to the window, so I could watch and listen to Mr. Durbin. I couldn't understand a word he was saying, but I knew his Spanish was slower than the Mexicans'. They talked so fast that I often wondered how they understood each other. His sentences were smooth and deliberate and laden with a heavy Arkansas accent. Though I had not a clue as to what he was saying, he was still more captivating than Brother Akers.
Not surprisingly, with such a large crowd, the morning's sermon took on a life of its own and became a marathon. Small crowd, shorter sermon. Big crowd, like Easter and Mother's Day and the Fall Picnic, and Brother Akers felt the need to perform. At some point, in the midst of his ramblings, Mr. Durbin seemed to get bored with it all. He ignored the message being broadcast from inside the sanctuary and began to deliver his own sermon. When Brother Akers paused to catch his breath, Mr. Durbin kept right on preaching. And when Brother Akers's hellfire and brimstone was at its fever pitch, Mr. Durbin was resting with a glass of water. He took a seat on the ground with the Mexicans and waited for the shouting to stop inside the sanctuary.
I waited, too. I passed the time by dreaming of the food that we'd soon have-heaping plates of fried chicken and gallons of homemade ice cream.
The Mexicans began glancing at the church windows. I'm sure they thought Brother Akers had gone crazy. "Relax," I wanted to tell them, "it happens all the time."
We sang five stanzas of "Just As I Am" for the benediction. No one walked down the aisle, and Brother Akers reluctantly dismissed us. I met Dewayne at the front door, and we raced down the street to the baseball field to see if the Methodists were there. Of course they were; they never worshiped as long as we did.
Behind the backstop, under three elm trees that had caught a million foul balls, the food was being arranged on picnic tables covered with redand-white checkerboard cloths. The Methodists were swarming around, the men and children hauling food while the ladies organized the dishes. I found Pearl Watson and chatted her up. "Brother Akers still goin'?" she asked with a grin.
"He just turned us loose," I said. She gave Dewayne and me two chocolate cookies. I ate mine in two bites.
"A Painted House"
Finally, the Baptists started arriving, amid a chorus of "Hello" and "Where you been?" and "What took so long?" Cars and trucks were pulled close, and soon were parked bumper to bumper along the fences around the field. At least one and maybe two would get hit with foul balls. Two years earlier, Mr. Wilber Shifflett's brand-new Chrysler sedan lost a windshield when Ricky hit a home run over the left-field fence. The explosion had been terrific-a loud thud, then the racket of glass bursting. But Mr. Shifflett had money, so no one got too worried. He knew the risks when he parked there. The Methodists beat us that year, too, seven to five, and Ricky was of the opinion that the manager, Pappy, should've changed pitchers in the third inning.
They didn't speak to each other for some time.
The tables were soon covered with large bowls of vegetables, platters heaped with fried chicken, and baskets filled with corn bread, rolls, and other breads. Under the direction of the Methodist minister's wife, Mrs. Orr, dishes were moved here and there until a certain order took shape. One table had nothing but raw vegetables-tomatoes of a dozen varieties, cucumbers, white and yellow onions in vinegar. Next to it were the beans-black-eyed peas, crowder peas, green beans cooked with ham, and butter beans. Every picnic had potato salad, and every chef had a different recipe. Dewayne and I counted eleven large bowls of the dish, and no two looked the same. Deviled eggs were almost as popular, and there were plates of them that covered half a table. Last, and most important, was the fried chicken. There was enough to feed the town for a month.
The ladies scurried about, fussing over the food while the men talked and laughed and greeted each other, but always with one eye on the chicken. Kids were everywhere, and Dewayne and I drifted to one tree in particular, where some ladies were arranging the desserts. I counted sixteen coolers of homemade ice cream, all covered tightly with towels and packed with ice.
Once the preparations had met the approval of Mrs. Orr, her husband, the Reverend Vernon Orr, stood in the center of the tables with Brother Akers, and the crowd grew still and quiet. The year before, Brother Akers had thanked God for His blessings; this year the honor went to the Methodists. The picnic had an unspoken pattern to it. We bowed our heads and listened as the Reverend Orr thanked God for His goodness, for all the wonderful food, for the weather, the cotton, and on and on. He left out nothing; Black Oak was indeed grateful for everything.
I could smell the chicken. I could taste the brownies and ice cream. Dewayne kicked me, and I wanted to lay him out. I didn't, though, because I'd get whipped for fighting during a prayer.
When the Reverend Orr finally finished, the men corralled the Mexicans and lined them up to be served. This was a tradition; Mexicans first, hill people second, children third, then the adults. Stick Powers appeared from nowhere, in uniform, of course, and managed to cut in line between the Mexicans and the hill folks. I heard him explain that he was on duty and didn't have much time. He carried away two plates-one covered with chicken and one covered with everything else he could pile on. We knew he'd eat until he was stuffed, then find a tree on the edge of town and sleep off his lunch.
Several of the Methodists asked me about Ricky-how was he doing, had we heard from him. I tried to be nice and answer their questions, but as a family we Chandlers did not enjoy this attention. And now that we were horrified over the Latcher secret, any mention of Ricky in public scared us.
"Tell him we're thinkin' about him," they said. They always said this, as if we owned a phone and called him every night.
"We're prayin' for him," they said.
"Thank you," I always replied.
A perfectly wonderful moment like the Fall Picnic could be ruined with an unexpected question about Ricky. He was in Korea, in the trenches, in the thick of the war, dodging bullets and killing people, not knowing if he would ever come home to go to church with us, to picnic with the town, to play against the Methodists again. In the midst of the excitement I suddenly felt very alone, and very frightened.
"Get tough," Pappy would say. The food helped immensely. Dewayne and I took our plates and sat behind the first-base dugout, where there was a small sliver of shade. Quilts were being placed all around the outfield, and families were sitting together in the sun. Umbrellas were popping up; the ladies were fanning their faces, their small children, and their plates. The Mexicans were squeezed under one tree, down the rightfield foul line, away from the rest of us. Juan had confessed to me the year before that they weren't sure if they liked fried chicken. I'd never heard such nonsense. It was a heck of a lot better than tortillas, I'd thought at the time.
My parents and grandparents ate together on a quilt near third base. After much haggling and negotiating, I'd been granted permission to eat with my buddies, a huge step for a seven-year-old.
"A Painted House"
The line never stopped. By the time the men reached the last table, the teenaged boys were back for more. One plate was enough for me. I wanted to save room for the ice cream. Before long we wandered over to the dessert table, where Mrs. Irene Flanagan was standing guard, preventing vandalism from the likes of us.
"How many chocolates you got?" I asked, looking at the collection of ice cream coolers just waiting in the shade.
She smiled and said, "Oh, I don't know. Several."
"Did Mrs. Cooper bring her peanut butter ice cream?" Dewayne asked.
"She did," Mrs. Flanagan said and pointed to a cooler in the middle of the pack. Mrs. Cooper somehow mixed chocolate and peanut butter in her ice cream, and the results were incredible. Folks clamored for it all year round. The year before, two teenaged boys, one a Baptist and one a Methodist, almost came to blows over who would get the next serving. While peace was being restored by the Reverend Orr, Dewayne managed to grab two bowls of the stuff. He charged down the street with them and hid behind a shed, where he devoured every drop. He talked of little else for a month.
Mrs. Cooper was a widow. She lived in a pretty little house two blocks behind Pop and Pearl's store, and when she needed yard work done she'd simply make a cooler of peanut butter ice cream. Teenagers would materialize from nowhere, and she had the neatest yard in town. Even grown men had been known to stop by and pull a few weeds.
"You'll have to wait," Mrs. Flanagan said.
"Till when?" I asked.
"Till everyone is finished."
We waited forever. Some of the older boys and the younger men began stretching their muscles and tossing baseballs in the outfield. The adults talked and visited and talked and visited, and I was certain the ice cream was melting. The two umpires arrived from Monette, and this sent a ripple of excitement through the crowd. They, of course, had to be fed first, and for a while they were more concerned with fried chicken than with baseball. Slowly, the quilts and umbrellas were taken from the outfield. The picnic was ending. It was almost time for the game.
The ladies gathered around the dessert table and began serving us. Finally Dewayne got his peanut butter ice cream. I opted for two scoops of chocolate over one of Mrs. Lou Kiner's fudge brownies. For twenty minutes there was a near-riot around the dessert table, but order was maintained. Both preachers stood in the midst of the pack, both eating as much ice cream as anybody else. The umpires declined, citing the heat as the reason that they should finally stop eating.
Someone shouted, "Play ball!" and the crowd moved toward the backstop. The Methodists were coached by Mr. Duffy Lewis, a farmer out west of town and, according to Pappy, a man of limited baseball intelligence. But after four losses in a row, Pappy's low opinion of Mr. Lewis had become almost muted. The umpires called the two coaches to a meeting behind home plate, and for a long time they discussed Black Oak's version of the rules of baseball. They pointed to fences and poles and limbs overhanging the field-each had its own rules and its own history. Pappy disagreed with most of what the umpires said, and the haggling went on and on.
The Baptists had been the home team the year before, so we hit first. The Methodist pitcher was Buck Prescott, son of Mr. Sap Prescott, one of the largest landowners in Craighead County. Buck was in his early twenties and had attended Arkansas State for two years, something that was quite rare. He had tried to pitch in college, but there had been some problems with the coach. He was left-handed, threw nothing but curveballs, and had beaten us the year before, nine to two. When he walked out to the mound, I knew we were in for a long day. His first pitch was a slow, looping curveball that was high and outside but called a strike anyway, and Pappy was already yapping at the umpire. Buck walked the first two batters, struck out the next two, then retired my father on a fly ball to center field.
Our pitcher was Duke Ridley, a young farmer with seven kids and a fastball even I could hit. He claimed he once pitched in Alaska during the war, but this had not been verified. Pappy thought it was a lie, and after watching him get shelled the year before, I had serious doubts, too. He walked the first three batters while throwing only one strike, and I thought Pappy might charge the mound and maim him. Their cleanup batter popped up to the catcher. The next guy flied out to shallow left. We got lucky when their number-six batter, Mr. Lester Hurdle, at age fifty-two the oldest player on either roster, hit a long fly ball to right, where our fielder, Bennie Jenkins, gloveless and shoeless, caught it with his bare hands.
The game settled into a pitcher's duel, not necessarily because the pitching was sharp, but more because neither team could hit. We drifted back to the ice cream, where the last melting remnants were being dished out. By the third inning the ladies of both denominations had grouped into small clusters of conversation and, for them, the game was of lesser importance. Somewhere not far away, a car radio was on, and I could hear Harry Caray. The Cardinals were playing the Cubs in the final game of the season.
"A Painted House"
As Dewayne and I retreated from the dessert table with our last cups of ice cream, we walked behind a quilt where half a dozen young women were resting and talking. "Well, how old is Libby?" I heard one of them say.
I stopped, took a bite, and looked beyond them at the game as if I weren't the least bit interested in what they were saying.
"She's just fifteen," another said.
"She's a Latcher. She'll have another one soon."
"Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Boy's what I heard."
"And the daddy?"
"Not a clue. She won't tell anybody."
"Come on," Dewayne said, hitting me with his elbow. We moved away and walked to the first-base dugout. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or scared. Word was out that the Latcher baby had arrived, but its father had not been identified.
It wouldn't be long, I thought. And we'd be ruined. I'd have a cousin who was a Latcher, and everybody would know it.
The tight pitching duel ended in the fifth inning when both teams erupted for six runs. For thirty minutes baseballs were flying everywhere-line drives, wild throws, balls in the outfield gaps. We changed pitchers twice, and I knew we were in trouble when Pappy went to the mound and pointed at my father. He was not a pitcher, but at that point there was no one left. He kept his pitches low, though, and we were soon out of the inning.
"Musial's pitching!" someone yelled. It was either a joke or a mistake. Stan Musial was a lot of things, but he'd never pitched before. We ran behind the bleachers to where the cars were parked. A small crowd was closing in on a '48 Dodge owned by Mr. Rafe Henry. Its radio was at full volume, and Harry Caray was wild-Stan the Man was indeed on the mound, pitching against the Cubs, against Frankie Baumholtz, the man he'd battled all year for the hitting title. The crowd at Sportsman's Park was delirious. Harry was yelling into the microphone. We were shocked at the thought of Musial on the mound.
Baumholtz hit a ground ball to third, and they sent Musial back to center field. I ran to the first-base dugout and told Pappy that Stan the Man had actually pitched, but he didn't believe me. I told my father, and he looked suspicious, too. The Methodists were up eight to six, in the bottom of the seventh, and the Baptist dugout was tense. A good flood would have caused less concern, at least at that moment.
It was at least ninety-five degrees. The players were soaked with sweat, their clean overalls and white Sunday shirts stuck to their skin. They were moving slower-paying the price for all that fried chicken and potato salad-and not hustling enough to suit Pappy.
Dewayne's father wasn't playing, so they left after a couple of hours. A few others drifted away. The Mexicans were still under their tree by the right-field foul pole, but they were sprawled out now and appeared to be sleeping. The ladies were even more involved with their shade-tree gossip; they could not have cared less who won the game.
I sat alone in the bleachers and watched the Methodists score three more in the eighth. I dreamed of the day when I'd be out there, hitting home runs and making incredible plays in center field. Those wretched Methodists wouldn't have a chance when I got big enough.
They won eleven to eight, and for the fifth year in a row Pappy had led the Baptists to defeat. The players shook hands and laughed when the game was over, then headed to the shade, where iced tea was waiting. Pappy didn't smile or laugh, nor did he shake hands with anybody. He disappeared for a while, and I knew he would pout for a week.
The Cardinals lost, too, three to zero. They finished the season four games behind the Giants and eight games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers, who would face the Yankees in an all-New York World Series.
The leftovers were gathered and hauled back to the cars and trucks. The tables were cleaned, and the litter was picked up. I helped Mr. Duffy Lewis rake the mound and home plate, and when we finished, the field looked as good as ever. It took an hour to say goodbye to everyone. There were the usual threats from the losing team about what would happen next year, and the usual taunts from the winners. As far as I could tell, no one was upset but Pappy.
As we left town I thought about the end of the season. Baseball began in the spring, when we planted and when hopes were high. It sustained us through the summer, often our only diversion from the drudgery of the fields. We listened to each game, then talked about the plays and the players and the strategies until we listened to the next one. It was very much a part of our daily lives for six months, then it was gone. Just like the cotton.
I was sad by the time we arrived home. No games to listen to on the front porch. Six months without the voice of Harry Caray. Six months with no Stan Musial. I got my glove and went for a long walk down a field road, tossing the ball in the air, wondering what I would do until April.
"A Painted House"
For the first time in my life, baseball broke my heart.
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