a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Once a month we went to visit family in Yazoo County, Mississippi, and Daddy would dutifully take us at some point to see my Grandfather Broocks. We had to sit in the un-airconditioned sweltering front room on a red naugahyde sofa while Daddy caught up with his brother Joe and his whiskered wife Charlie with the giant mole on her lip.
Uncle Joe would ask us about school and then Granddaddy would tell us to come give him a hug. He’d press a silver dollar in our hand and Charlie would give us a piece of pound cake or a bacon and cornbread sandwich before shooing us out to “go play so the grownups can visit.” That was fine by me because there was always a passle of Uncle Joe’s prize winning huntin’ dogs and their pups on and under the porch to play with or chase. Nothing smells sweeter on a hot Mississippi Delta day than puppy slobber and dog dander.
Momma never went with us on these sojourns. It was always just Daddy, Elizabeth, and me. Daddy would first stop at the old store out on the highway for Uncle Joe and Aunt Charlie’s favorite snuff. He’d pick up a Three Musketeers bar for him, a Hershey’s bar for Liz, and a bag of peanuts and an icy cold coke for me to pour them in. Then roar up the road over the loam hills above the Delta floor up into the cooler, kudzu canopy. We’d rattle over cattle gaps and single-track crosstie bridges, leaving behind a trail of dust and giggles as our stomachs dropped when Daddy accelerated over hilltops.
Elizabeth asked Daddy, “Why doesn’t Poppa Broocks drive?” Granddaddy Broocks was a stern man. He liked starched white shirts, and black boots that you could see your face in the polished leather. Frank Broocks would not drive himself nor would he use a bank. He wanted all payments in cash. Preferably gold coins if he could get them.
Daddy kind of shrugged his shoulders, “Well it’s complicated…” he began.
“How?” she asked.
“Poppa had to go to jail for shooting the governor when he tried to steal your Poppa’s land,” he slowed for a hairpin curve.
“Wait a minute…he shot the governor? When was this? Why’d he shoot him?” Elizabeth sat up straighter in the front seat and turned to look at Daddy.
“Well…Poppa was gone on business a few days and come back to find Grandma all worked up. Seems a state official had come out and stuck a bill on the door of the house that indicated the state was taking the farm by right of Eminent Domain. That’s a fancy term for the government taking your property and paying you what THEY say it is worth and you get no say-so,” Daddy was getting wound up.
“That’s not fair.” Elizabeth’s brows pinched together behind her cat eye glasses.
“Nope. It sure isn’t…you see the governor at the time was Governor Brewer. And ol’ Earl was your Poppa’s cousin. Now Poppa’s family and Earl’s family had been feuding for years because Poppa’s family had two big parcels of land and Earl’s family only had the one. Earl’s granddaddy staked a claim in what is now Carroll County and they built a big cotton spread. Poppa’s grandfather staked land both in the Yazoo River Valley and up here in the hills. They wanted to build up here to be above the yellow fever and raise cattle and horses. They cleared and farmed the along the Yazoo making a mint on cotton before the war. It took over 200 people working that land. “
“What about the one in Carroll County?” I asked, now straddling the floorboard hump and hanging my arms over the front seat.
“Well…they did ok up until the war but then times got tough for cotton farmers during Reconstruction. After the war, Earl’s family got involved in politics and carpetbaggers. They took on tenant farmers and sharecroppers. They always had enough money to send their kids to college and pretty soon their boys all took up lawyering.”
“What about the Yazoo family?” Elizabeth asked.
“My great-grandfather James was a good farmer but after the war it was hard to grow and sell cotton. He took on tenant farmers and sharecroppers too. But he made his bread and butter by raising beef cattle up in the hills. Since the Yankees were still here he made the unpopular but lucrative decision to sell to the US army. He also had a lot of timber so he ran a mill and sold lumber for the reconstruction of Vicksburg.”
“But where does Poppa’s story come in?” asked Elizabeth.
“I’m getting there…you see Earl’s granddaddy and Poppa’s granddaddy James had a final parting of ways after the war over the politics of money. Earl’s granddaddy wanted half of the land that James held fair and square. Lots of lawsuits went back and forth over the years between the two Mississippi branches of the family. It resulted in interesting family reunions.” Daddy paused for effect. He had to take you on a bird hunt to get to the telling of a good tale.
“And?” my sister pushed.
“Well, oil and gas was found all around Poppa’s hill property. Earl went on to become the governor of the state and one of the first things he did was decide to have the state build a road right through your Poppa’s property. Now that road would not really connect anything. It was a land grab and your granddaddy knew it.”
“So what did he do?” I asked from my perch.
“It was summer time and Poppa was hot under the collar. He got his hat, his pistol, his hired hand Rough, and took off down the road in his Model T for the hour or so trip to the capital. By the time he got there Daddy was in a right huff. He marched up to the door of the governor’s mansion and knocked loudly on the door hollering for Earl to come out. Well the doorman was pretty upset when Poppa waltzed in the place, pretty much bowling him over.”
“’Do you have a card sir?’ The liveried man asked. Your Poppa just ignored him and began hollering, ‘Earl. You SOB. Get out here. We got us some talking to do.’ “
“Did he ever come out?” Elizabeth was completely focused on the story.
“No… Poppa opened a door that went to the Governor’s office. A man working at a desk and jumped up, ‘You can’t come in here. The Governor is a busy man. You have to make an appointment to see him.’ But your Poppa is not much of one to stop once he gets started down a road like this.”
“Well?” I asked. “What happened?”
“He marched in the room anyway, ‘Earl. Where the hell are you?’ he hollered. Then he heard some rustling of paper and a snort from behind a door. Daddy strode over to it but the secretary got between him and the door. Daddy tossed the skinny man aside. He pounded on the bathroom door with the butt of his fist, ‘Earl. Get out here now. Or I swear to God I will kick this door in on your ample ass.’”
“Did he kick it in?”
“He flung the door open. It had no lock. And there sat the Governor reading the paper on his newly installed Crapper – named for the inventor himself, you know.” Daddy digressed.
“Daddy! Don’t do that.” My sister and I both groaned, “What happened when he opened the door?”
“Well, Poppa bellowed and called him a ‘land grabbing cheat’ and a ‘low life good for nothin’ carpet bagger’. Ol’ Earl stood up and stuck his nasty ol’ rump at your Poppa taunting him.”
“No!” my sister gasped. I collapsed in a pile of giggles in the backseat.
“Yes he did. Poppa took out his pistol and shot ol’ Earl right in the butt cheek. And ol’ Earl was angry as an ol’ wet hen. Apparently he howled and then grabbed his drawers and started after Poppa, hitchin’ ‘em up as he went to follow him. Poppa was not leaving though. He went to the Governor’s desk across the room, slammed down the notice of seizure and demanded that the Governor rescind it. Ol’ Earl had used his power to take the land and then sell it to himself for a penny an acre. And there he stood in his bloody trousers crowing over what a smart thing he’d done. “
“What a scoundrel. How could he get away with that?” Eliza asked.
“Well, he was governor and he had the power to do most anything. But while they stood their arguing the state po-lice came and arrested your Poppa. Earl was so damn mad at Poppa for shooting him he had him taken straight to Parchman,” Daddy shoved the last of a candy bar in his mouth.
“Parchman? How long did he stay there?” I was back on my perch on the chair hump. Every child in Mississippi knows that Parchman is where folks got sent to die. Adults told small children and teens alike that if they were not “right with Jesus” they’d end up at Parchman on their way to hell. Some even said it was hell.
“Not long actually as ol’ Earl was by now embarrassed he had been shot in his backside. They decided to charge Poppa with larceny for ‘stealing’ his own farm equipment off that land that Earl stole from him and for refusing to leave the land. They had a trial in Yazoo and sentenced him to 5 years in the Parchman,” Daddy licked the last smears of chocolate off his right thumb.
“Five years?” I was outraged, “That ain’t fair. It was his land…”
“Yes but families can have long, ugly memories,” Daddy explained. “Poppa was sent straight back to Parchman from the trial and left Miss Carrie at home with babies underfoot. “
“Poor Grandma…how did she cope with getting kicked off the farm?” Eliza looked out the window.
“That’s the kicker. Earl never kicked her off. He never planned to run them off. He just wanted to own the land so he could get the mineral rights and sell off the oil and gas that he knew was there. Your grandma, Poppa’s twin Annie Gooden, and her husband got in Poppa’s truck a month or so later and went to the governor’s mansion to see Miss Minnie, Earl’s wife,” Daddy continued the story as he slowed to center the boards on a particularly narrow iron and crosstie bridge.
“What for?” I asked.
“Well, Miss Minnie and Mama’s folks went way back in the old Huguenot community. Miss Minnie had no idea that it was her husband’s cousin who had shot him. So the two women had a set down and the entire story came out. Miss Minnie was not happy about her husband stealing from family.”
“I bet,” said Elizabeth.
“So the two women marched into the Governor’s office and Miss Minnie interrupted him to give him an earful. That woman was an imposing lady and she clearly had his number. By the end he had re-deeded the land back to your Poppa and agreed to a pardon so Poppa could go home,” Daddy turned off the dirt road. “But your Poppa never would give the state of Mississippi a nickel more than he had to after that…he paid his taxes because he had to but would not let any oil and gas folks on the property. He’d rather earn his keep then have to get in any kind of business with folks who were friends of Earl’s.”
We pulled slowly into the yard of the house as ten or twelve hounds of various sizes and pedigrees pulled and stretched themselves out from under the cool of the porch. Poppa sat in a cane bottomed chair on the porch, his Resistol hat on the knee of his crisply creased khaki clad crossed leg. A stretch of white skin showed above his freshly polished black boots. He slightly lifted a hand in his usual dour greeting.
My sister and I scrambled out of the car, skipped and jumped over and around the dogs and up the stairs to where Poppa sat, gave him a big hug and a kiss on the top of his mostly bald head. We then headed in to be greeted by our tobacco stained Aunt and Uncle with the genuine faux leather sofa and the mingled smells of snuff, fried chicken, butterbeans, and cornbread.