• Short Story: O’Mama and the Great Leap Forward

    O’Mama and the Great Leap Forward

    By Harold O. Wilson

    Change comes slowly to the piney woods of north Florida. Like evolution, life advances in increments so small as to be scarcely noticeable. An isolated expanse of sand, palmettos, scrub oak, and jack pine, this region below the dip of the Saint Mary’s River looks and feels like a stretch of eternity. On occasion, though, some event, human or otherwise is significant enough to produce a great leap forward that changes everything—an episode that disrupts the natural pattern of things. It was 1935 that this happened on Charley Baker Swinton’s north Florida dirt farm.Some say it started the night Miriam Rushie Swinton, the oldest of Charley Baker Swinton and Louise Edderly Swinton’s six children, got lost in the woods. There are others who say it wasn’t until the outhouse incident. At any rate, it was on a courting night after Herman left her swooning next to the old stump in the woods back from the house that Miriam got lost. In a moon struck daze, she took three steps away from the stump and realized she had no idea which way to go. The lamps were out in the house and along with the barn and all the sheds, it was gone in the blackness. She couldn’t yell either because then she’d wake everybody up and it would be the devil’s own time to pay. So she sat down next to a big cypress tree, folded her arms around her knees and stared into the dark as though providence took special care of young ladies like herself.

    Now 1935 was a difficult time and Charley Baker, a boilermaker by trade and farmer by conviction peddled his farm produce to keep his family going. Every morning he filled his Model A with vegetables and sold them off during his lunch time in the parking lot at the Merrill-Stevens shipyard. You would know his car among all the other Model A’s because he advertised the produce, prices included, on its doors and sides. Rose Jane, the youngest child, did the lettering and numbering with white chalk: watermelon 10¢, cantaloupe 5¢, potatoes 20¢ for a peck, okra 5¢ a bundle, and on it went depending on what was in season. This rolling vegetable stand was a constant embarrassment to all the children, especially when Charley Baker drove the family to school events. It didn’t seem to bother Louise though. She was a short round ball of determination as hard and knotty as the oak trees that grew in their front yard. Everybody who didn’t call her Mama called her O’Mama.

    Like most out of the way places, the piney woods of north Florida have their own unique character and their own peculiar state of mind. These woods weren’t peopled by a large ethnic group like the Irish or Germans, but by a slow trickle of mountain folk from Georgia and West Virginia. Charley Baker’s people came to West Virginia from Holland and he was proud to tell that. But when asked where her people were from, O’Mama would pause for a moment and own that they just evolved up out of those West Virginia Mountains.

    Miriam Swinton was part of that evolutionary trail. A trail that curled back eons to some snout nosed creature that decided to leave its feted swamp and become an air breathing, upright walking beauty with long brown hair and eyes so deep blue they could melt Satan’s heart. Like all the children, she was conceived in the dark and birthed by lamplight at the hands of Nordeen Fitters right in O’Mama’s big bed. She rode Mr. Sorley’s school bus down tworut roads through the woods to school in Dinsmore, and met Herman at a school dance in Jacksonville on a night she went in to stay over at Lavern’s. She then spent the better part of her senior year in high school slipping around Charley Baker so she could be courted by Herman. Now that boy was committed. He would drive out to the farm after work over twenty miles of dirt roads. Then with the head lights turned out on his 1929 Buick S Coupe, he’d bounce up the tworut road that connected the house to the main road. Miriam would sneak out in the dark and meet him at a prearranged place in the woods.

    The night she got lost, she had just given up on any helpful intervention and was gathering up her courage to set out on her own when she saw a beam from a flashlight dancing around in the trees. Her heart went into double quick time because she thought it might be Herman coming back to find her. But it wasn’t Herman.

    “Miriam, Miriam,” she heard, “You out here child?”

    “Mama,” Miriam said. “I’m over here, Mama.”

    “What in tarnation you doin out here youngan? Well don’t tell me, I know.  Where is that boy anyway? Didn’t he show up? Come on in the house now. Be glad your daddy ain’t awake.”

    It never occurred to Miriam to ask how O’Mama knew she was out there… and knew where to find her. It was just taken for granted her mama knew these things. Her gift was more mysterious than anything Miriam ever read in books. The fact is, O’Mama knew everything and unknown to Miriam, aided and abetted her courtship with Herman by distracting Charlie Baker at crucial moments.

    Following the flashlight through the woods Miriam said, “Mama, this place is awful. These woods are dark and deep and there ain’t nothin lovely about um…. You look around, there’s nothin for miles. Why in the world did daddy bring us out here?”

    Well Charley Baker was a wary man and he brought his family to this isolated place because he thought if he could get his children far enough out in the woods he just might be able to protect them from the evils and misfortunes he saw in the world. And of course that included all the Hermans who wanted to steal his daughters away. Oh, he was a suspicious man and somewhat reclusive.

    He wasn’t always like that though. Smart and confident, at one time he was the youngest engineer in West Virginia. Not a college-trained engineer that built bridges and things, no, Charley Baker drove a freight train from Charleston to Morgantown. And he did it when he was only twenty-three years old.

    In those West Virginia days, Wednesdays were particularly special to Charley Baker. He would get up early and shine the instruments on the old steam locomotive until they gleamed.  He would joke with the fireman and when the train started up ol’ flat top he would get downright excited.

    “She ain’t a gonna be there,” the fireman would say.

    But as they passed a small farm half way up the hill, a beautiful girl with long black hair would be standing in her yard waving a big white towel at him. Charley Baker would lean out of the cab, wave his kerchief at the girl, blow the whistle and open the throttle causing big black clouds of smoke to fill the sky. It was a dramatic sight and that’s exactly the effect Charley Baker wanted. Actually he was a very shy man and this is about as close to being forward as he ever got.

    “She likes me,” he would say.

    “She don’t even know you,” the fireman would say.

    Now the spring dance in Morgantown was coming and this particular year Charley Baker thought he might have a chance to meet the black haired girl. The night of the dance he put on his best Levi’s and a brilliant white starched dress shirt so stiff it could stand by itself. At the door of the dancehall he immediately looked around for the girl and saw her drinking punch and laughing with a group of her friends.

    God, she was beautiful. Her eyes gleamed black and her long thick hair fell all the way to her waist. After getting up his nerve, Charley Baker walked over and asked would she like to dance.

    The girl studied him for a moment and then exclaimed, “It’s you. Well I do declare… it’s you from the train.”

    And Charley Baker grinning all over his-self straightened up as tall as he possibly could.

    “You do it,” she yelled. “You buffoon. I can’t believe it. Every Wednesday morning I get up, chop firewood, heat water in the big iron kettle out back, wash the clothes, and hang ‘em in the sun to dry. Then I hear that train and I run out waving the biggest towel I can find and I yell, ‘No smoke, no smoke.’ And bein the fool I am, I think this time the ninny’s goin to hear me. And what do you do? You hang out the cab grinnin like a idiot and wave your little rag at me. Then you blow that stupid whistle and blacken the sky with your sooty smoke and my washin in the bargain.”

    With that she pulled open his shirt pocket and slowly filled it with the dregs of her punch. A blood red stain in the form of a giant heart spread out across Charley Baker’s chest and he was smitten for life. This feisty lady was definitely the woman for him.

    So he got back at the black haired girl by marrying her, taking her out of the mountains to an isolated dirt farm in north Florida, and giving her those half dozen children. Three boys and two girls grew up in that place. Little Jonas Mack was the only one that didn’t make it. He just up and died one winter morning without much warning and it was before his first birthday too. O’Mama didn’t care much for the farm after that, except it was better after the outhouse incident.

    There was no running water on the place so everybody trooped out back to the outhouse to do their business—a one-seater with the hole cut particularly large. The intent had been to nail a regular toilet seat on the hole, but Charley Baker never got around to it.

    Now one afternoon as O’Mama settled down in the outhouse, one of the boards bent and she slipped a little too far down in the hole. When the board sprung back up she found herself locked in solid. She was a short woman and her feet didn’t reach the floor and her arms weren’t strong enough to lift her so there she sat. After trying to remember what she might have done to deserve such a fate, she thought on how to get out. She was too ladylike to yell so she fished around in her purse for something to attract attention. O’Mama didn’t go anywhere without her purse.

    In her rummaging, she found a white handkerchief and an old casserole spoon from a church supper. She stuck the handkerchief tied to the spoon out the crescent in the door and waved it around. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard her oldest boy Adam say, “Who’s in there? Come out you kids and stop foolin around.”

    “It ain’t the kids, Adam. It’s me.  Get me out a here.  But don’t you open that door. Ain’t nobody to see me like this.”

    “Mama, how’m I gonna get you out if I can’t come in. Can one of the girls pull you out? I’ll get Miriam.”

    “Hell fire and damnation. I said no one is to see me like this.”

    Now hell fire and damnation was about as close to cursing as O’Mama ever came and she didn’t consider that swearing. It was more of a theological description of the sorry fate she wished on Charley Baker for failing to nail the toilet seat on the outhouse hole.

    By now a crowd had gathered as the children came up one by one and joined the conference. With no solutions forthcoming, O’Mama took matters into her own hands.  She told Adam to get the old tripod he, Amos and Joshua used to lift the motor out of the junk Chevrolet.

    All the children had biblical names except for Rose Jane, the last one. While she was pregnant with Rose Jane, O’Mama had a falling out with the preacher over whether there was divine forgiveness for people who lied and talked behind your back. The preacher swore God forgave such people. Now that was just incomprehensible to O’Mama and she swore off religion—at least for about six months anyway. As a result Rose Jane didn’t get a biblical name.

    Adam brought around the tripod and the chain-fall and O’Mama said to straddle the outhouse with it and let the hook down inside. Then she told Rose Jane to run to the house and get a bed-sheet.

    “How we gonna get the hook down inside the outhouse, Mama?” asked Amos.

    “I declare my patience is runnin out with you boys,” O’Mama said. “Take the dadburned roof off the thing. But if anybody looks at me, I swear they’ll be struck blind.”

    Everyone took this threat seriously because they remembered what happened to the Willis boy the Sunday Miriam slipped over the balcony rail in church. She was leaning way out so she could hear what the preacher was saying about how those who did sex before they were married were going straight to hell. This revelation was of more than passing interest to Miriam and in her concentration she went right over the rail. Somebody grabbed her legs as she passed and this left her hanging in a very exposed position with her skirt down over her head. Without missing a beat in his sermon the preacher announced, “And if anyone turns and looks up at Miriam Swinton, they will be struck blind.”

    That was when the Willis boy said, “I don’t care what he says. I’m gonna risk one eye.”

    When he swung around to look, you wouldn’t believe it but his eye caught on the hard edge of Mable Harmon’s straw hat and it did dern near put it out. He had to wear a eye patch for three weeks and was ridiculed by everybody in school. The worst was he never even caught so much as a glimpse of Miriam Swinton’s fair bottom.

    So great care was taken by all the children not to look at O’Mama when the roof was pried off the outhouse. With the roof gone now, O’Mama tied the sheet under her arms, snapped on the hook and told the boys to start hauling her up. Which they did. Slowly, slowly they inched her up until they knew she had to be out.

    “Dadburn you,” O’Mama yelled. “Have I raised idiots for sons. Look, you’ve lifted the whole outhouse.”

    And sure enough, the entire outhouse was suspended two inches above the ground. It was hangin from O’Mama’s posterior. Then suddenly it let go and dropped to its foundation.

    O’Mama fixed herself up, hooked her purse over her arm and walked out the door. Her head high, she said to the crowd of children, “Charley Baker has two weeks to put electricity in this house and give me runnin water or as God is my witness, I’ll burn this whole place down around him and make him move me to town.”

    At this news, a great cheer went up from the children. As they danced around the outhouse, the woods reverberated with their whoops and hollers.

    And that’s how the Delco Plant got put in to electrify the house. It supported a new indoor bathroom with hot and cold running water and a radio that brought the world right into their living room—Backstage Wife, The Romance of Helen Trent, the James. J Braddock and Max Baer fight. Oh, it was something.

    Now the Delco Plant didn’t generate enough electricity to run the radio, lights, and water heater for very long at a time and a lot of the old ways remained. Unless there was an important fight on the radio, the family still gathered on the porch in the evening as night came in. The bullbats, feeding on insects circled to great heights in the twilight only to dive and swoop to within inches of sandy destruction. The cows came up from the woods where they foraged during the day and would lie down in knots of three and four. A few would stand as sentinels in the gathering gloom in response to some instinct for self-preservation not quite dead. And grasping a dim sense of the inevitable, Charley Baker gave in to the great leap forward and tolerated Herman’s S Coupe rattling up the tworut road in full confidence.

    Herman joined the family on the porch now. He would find his chair next to Miriam and take her hand. Everyone would sit quietly and watch the darkness approach like a thickening memory, slowly swallowing up the barn, the sheds, the cows, the porch until everything was gone except the night. Unlike the city where life goes on around the clock, the soft quiet darkness put a period to the day and for a while called an end to life’s toil. At the same time the stars emerging in the black sky held out the promise of a new day to come.

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