There was an elderly black man who lived in an orange grove by himself four miles down the two-lane asphalt road from where I lived, right where it made an abrupt ninety degree turn. Within the orange grove there was a narrow dirt road that led up to his one room cement block home with a corrugated sheet metal roof. The orange trees were so large that his home was hard to see until you looked up the narrow, inclined dirt road that led to it. It had one window on each of the three sides and a door occupied the other wall.
He had a small shed where he kept his prized possession, his mule, and he had several dogs, cats and plenty of chickens that seemed to roam free. When I was nine or ten, my buddies and I would ride our bikes down the two-lane road past his place where we would stop for a break, pull a few oranges off the trees and carefully sneak up and watch him.
We had to be extremely quiet so the dogs wouldn’t hear us and so we wouldn’t get caught. He seemed very scary and we would carefully leave in just a few minutes, having dared to even do it. On school days, the school bus always drove past his place on the way to school and back home, and I always looked up his narrow road to see his small place with his mule, dogs, cats, and chickens.
When I was fourteen, my dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to see if the elderly man would rent his mule to us for a day. I excitedly said yes. It would give me a reason to get a closer look and maybe meet him after all this time.
We drove up the narrow drive to his home and climbed out. He came out to greet us. He had short white hair, a deep dark complexion, and wore a long-sleeved white shirt. He wore suspenders to hold up his gray pants, which were pulled up too high, showing is ankles. He was very frail and bent over.
Dad introduced us, then made a request to rent his mule. All this time the man was looking at me rather than my father. He had long been taught not to make eye contact with a white man, but he could with a young teenager.
Before he gave my dad any answer, he asked me a few questions. He wanted to know my age, where I went to school and did I have any brothers and sisters. Later I realized that he was studying me, my honesty and my maturity, before he made his decision. While he could use the five dollars my dad had offered, it was more important to him that his mule would be returned safely. It had also finally dawned on me that I would have to walk the mule home, something I had not even considered, and mules can be dangerous if they didn’t like you or found a reason to be difficult. That would be a long four mile walk.
After several minutes of silent consideration and while never turning his gaze away from me, he agreed to our offer. He showed me how to handle and walk his mule named Jose. He gave me a full handful of small carrots to reward Jose for good behavior, and showed me how to feed him with a wide-open flat hand. He impressed upon me the need for giving Jose plenty of water. Most of all he warned me to always stay in front of a mule and not behind it. They can kick and really hurt. He also warned me that Jose was used to his dogs but not others. He advised me to keep all dogs away from him. He was also a larger mule, so I was reminded to be good to him and be careful. Pet his face often and speak to him gently. Mules are strong and smart animals and will carry and pull a great amount of weight, but they won’t do anything they think could be dangerous. That is when they can become obnoxious.
It was exciting, and I liked this man a great deal for trusting me. I cautiously walked his mule back to my house with my dad following slowly behind me in his car.
That evening I returned Jose to his owners home by myself. His prized mule turned out to be very sweet and did everything dad and I asked of him. The elderly gentleman came out of his small home, smiled, looked his mule over, and walked him back to his shed. I gave the gentleman the remaining carrots and told him I had kept his mule well watered. I had no trouble with his mule at all. He was pleased. I must be a good person, he said, because Jose doesn’t like mean people. He then made some polite conversation and told me with a big smile that he recognized me from years ago when I snuck up with my friends and spied on him! All those years of thinking he was scary evaporated with that big smile of his. His gentle eyes, along with his kind, polite, and considerate manner had completely won me over. I ran those four miles back to my house with a happy and proud heart. My new friend trusted me and I had proven myself worthy of Jose’s care, and dad and mom trusted me to return Jose alone and safely. I also knew my mother would be worried if I didn’t get back quickly. In those days there were no cell phones. I remember thinking how much I wanted to return and get to know this wonderful, elderly black man. I wanted to learn his story if I could. As a terrible fate would have it, I never had the chance.
Time slips by when you are so young and you think time will last forever. It was probably six months later when I was riding the school bus, looked up his narrow dirt road and to my horror, a bulldozer was leveling his home! I screamed, “No! What happened?” An older student broke the terrible news to me that the sheriff had killed him! Why? How? I wanted to know! I was told that the orange grove had been sold and the old black man would have to leave. The sheriff drove up to his home and ordered him to vacate, and this old, frail, bent over black man, it was claimed, had threatened the sheriff with a shovel. The sheriff pulled his pistol and killed him! Conveniently, he would now not be a problem. It made me feel sick.
I climbed off the bus at the bus stop and walked home in disbelief. When I arrived, I asked my mother what she knew. She told me to wait and talk to my father. When dad got home, I told him what I had heard. He said nothing. I think he was as upset as I was, but he said he couldn’t talk about it. He could never tell me. I was never told.
These wonderful parents of mine were trapped by a culture in which the rules by which they were obligated to live were in contradiction to how I was raised. I was taught to treat people fairly, and give all people, black or white, respect. I was taught that injustice must be fought and right will win over wrong. They knew what had happened was wrong.
During the following year, I watched from the bus as the orange grove was cleared. Later, a church with a white congregation was built on the site of that wonderful old black man’s home. How could my parents ever bring themselves to tell me that?