These events are based on the true story of a man I know to be honest and trustworthy. A man whom I’ve known since the day I came into this world. This is the account of his life, though the names have been changed for legal protection.
Chapter One: Polio
“Push, Gracie, push!” That’s what the midwife said as Momma strained all red-faced with her knees backed up towards her hips. I’m not sure if they gave her a hickory stick to bite down on or if she just kept a white-knuckle grip on the headboard of that bed, sheets wrinkled up and soaked through with sweat and blood. Only Momma, the midwife, and that old hand-me-down four post bed would know for sure. No one else was allowed in the room. No doctors, no family, not even Daddy. That’s the way it was done back then. Back in 1938. When I was born.
Eyes squeezed so tight you’d swear her eyebrows were touching her cheeks, veins bulging out in places she didn’t even know she had, there wasn’t an ounce of quit in Momma. No sir. Not an ounce. She was gonna keep right on pushing till I was out of her and into the wide blue world. “It’s a boy, Gracie,” the midwife said, taking me up in a towel and wiping the slime out of my nose and mouth.
Momma sat back on her elbows—spit the hickory stick out of her mouth if she had one—and smiled as the tears streaked her face. Now I don’t know if I’d say Momma was a prophet or anything, but in that moment, right before she passed out from all the pain and effort, she said something. Something that stuck, as we here in the south like to say. With a voice like butter on cornbread she breathed, “God’s given me a preacher.” It was a simple statement, short and to the point, as if there were no way it wouldn’t be so. Even named me after the profession like that would keep me from having a choice. Maybe it worked. Reverend Waylon Williamson is what they wound up calling me. Momma never did get to see me preach, but we’re not to that part of the story yet.
My baby sister was still a ways off from bursting onto the scene so that made me the youngest of six kids, and we grew up poor. Like wrong side of the tracks poor in one of the smallest towns in central Florida. We’re talking dirt roads, dirty necks, bare feet, and a whole lot of gossip in a town where everybody knows everybody. So when I contracted polio at two years old and Daddy didn’t have the money to take me to the doctor, he decided he would just pray and believe God for the healing his little boy needed. It didn’t take long for everyone to find out about it and soon enough the sheriff came knocking at the front door. “I. T.,” the sheriff said as Daddy opened the door real slow like. Daddy’s given name was Irving Travis Williamson, but nobody, including Daddy himself, had time for a twenty-five dollar handle like that. So he just went by I. T.
“Yessir,” Daddy said. He respected the law; appreciated the safety lawmen provided. And he knew the wisdom in submitting to authority. But Daddy was a man of God.
“I need to see your boy.” The sheriff didn’t even want to be there, but too many people had heard the rumor of Irving’s little boy and how bad he was suffering. His hands were tied.
“You’re welcome to come in, but I don’t know what you wanna see. He’s sick and God’s gonna heal him.” Daddy stepped out of the way and let the sheriff into our small house while the deputies waited on the porch; a couple young bucks with something to prove, chewing on toothpicks and looking for trouble as if it was gonna jump out of the bushes in our front yard.
The sheriff took his hat off when Momma came through the living room. “Ma’am,” he said as Momma wiped the soap off of her hands and onto her stained apron. To make extra money, and because she could do it at home while taking care of us kids, Momma did the clothes washing for all the neighbors. It was only a few cents per load, and all she had was a number seven washtub with an old fashioned washboard, but it was enough to help make both ends meet every week. From her hands to about halfway up her forearms, her skin was always pink; rubbed raw from all the washing. She offered him a sweet tea, which he politely declined. “I’m just here to see your boy.”
Momma put her hands on her hips. “Well he’s right in there. Now he ain’t been healed yet, so he’s a sight.” She turned around quick and started towards the backdoor to finish washing more clothes. She supported Daddy no matter what, and right now supporting Daddy meant not letting the sheriff see her cry.
Daddy led the sheriff into the small dim room where I was laid out in a bed that I shared with my brothers. Now I don’t remember this, but it’s said that the polio had me twisted up so bad my head was touching my ankles. The sheriff’s eyes got big as silver dollars as he took his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the rolling sweat from his forehead. “I. T., you know I can’t let him stay like this. He’s gotta go to the doc.”
“God’s gonna heal him, sheriff.” Daddy wasn’t one to cow or back down from anyone or anything. Not even a sheriff who stood about six inches taller and wider, who also happened to have a revolver strapped to his hip. He just kept looking at me and then back at the sheriff, hiding the tension in his eyes and keeping his fists tight at his waist. Faith only went so far, and even a man like Daddy had doubts from time to time.
The sheriff wasn’t gonna back down either. Like I said before his hands were tied. Especially after seeing a two-year-old in as bad of shape as I was. “Well if God doesn’t heal him by tomorrow I’m taking him to the doc.” He took his hat out from under his sweat-stained armpit and put it back on his head. “And then I’m taking you to jail.”
“I understand.” That made Daddy’s teeth grit. “Well, thank you for stopping by. I got things to do so you can see yourself out.” He watched the sheriff go, leaving behind this ominous feeling that he would be back to make good on everything he said. He would take me to the doc, and he wouldtake Daddy to jail, if something miraculous didn’t happen between now and the morning. But Daddy was a man of God. And being a man of god sometimes meant believing in miracles.
Early the next morning there came a knock at the front door. Same heavy-handed knock as the day before. The sheriff didn’t plan on giving God too much time to do whatever it was He was gonna do. Daddy answered the door with a face hard as granite but his eyes were puffed and red. It was plain as day that he had been doing some crying and hadn’t got too much sleep. Momma used to tell me he fell asleep that night on his knees at the foot of the little bed I shared with my sister, the hair on his forearms matted flat with the tears he’d cried wrestling with God. He just knew God had the power to heal his boy, but for whatever reason, He hadn’t yet.
“I. T.,” the sheriff said. This time the deputies looked like stray dogs who hadn’t been fed in a week. Their hands stayed close to their guns and they had this smirk on their faces.
“Yessir,” Daddy said, his voice cracking a bit.
“I need to see your boy.”
Daddy stepped back from the door. “Yes you do,” he said letting the sheriff walk in. My brothers and sisters were poking at some eggs and toast that Momma had made while Momma fixed up some cooking scraps for the dogs. The sheriff took his hat off again and walked slow. Like he knew what he was gonna see, and he knew what he was gonna have to do to Daddy once he saw it. As determined as he was, I can’t imagine the sheriff was keen on the idea of leading Daddy away in handcuffs in front of his children.
When they got back to the room I was in, the sheriff’s eyes got big as silver dollars and his mouth kind of dropped open. Daddy didn’t wait for him to say anything he just cleared his throat and spoke up. “Well, thanks for coming by. I got things to do so you can see yourself out.” The sheriff didn’t move. He just stared at the little boy in the bed. There I was, sitting up straight, legs stretched out, giggling as I galloped a hand-carved wooden horse across my knees. Daddy didn’t go to jail that day, and I didn’t go to the doc. And neither of us ever really thought about polio again.