For those of you who have followed the blog up till this point, you’ll notice there’s a lot that is missing. We have been gearing up to release ‘MAN OF GOD’ as a full length novel, and that time is finally arriving! It’s exciting and scary for me.
I decided to leave the first few chapters of the novel up on the blog to give people a sample. The full length will be available for preorder some time next month. Updates, advertisements, and videos about ‘MAN OF GOD’ and future projects will continue to be posted here on the blog. So, if you’re here, you’ll be in the know about everything as it happens!
Thank you for all the support. Sincerely. The WordsByCliff blog is going over some changes to streamline and make things overall better for everyone who follows it regularly. I will begin working hard immediately, to deliver new thoughts, ideas, and interesting content for your reading and consideration.
Thank you again for lending me, and my characters, your time. There’s more still to come, and I look forward to your feedback.
A poem by Reverend Waylon Williamson
Right off the Atlantic Ocean, Panama is the spot. Where we are doomed to spend our time, In the land that God forgot.
Down where there’s no Ten Commandments. And a man always has his thirst. We’re outcasts from civilization. Victims of life at it’s worst.
Down on this rum-soaked isthmus, we’re the men the Lord forgot. Out in the enchanted jungle, we itch with the tropical rot.
Living with the natives, down by the Sweltering Zone. Down by the man-made river, three thousand miles from home.
Holding onto memories, waiting to see our gals. Hoping that while we’re away, they haven’t married our pals.
Drenched with sweat in the evening, we sit on our beds and dream. Filling ourselves with liquor, to stop our memories supreme.
We lay at night on our pillow, with ills no doctor can cure. Hell, we’re not soldiers, just convicts on a foreign tour.
Nobody knows we are living, down here amongst the damned. Back home we are forgotten. We’re soldiers of Uncle Sam.
In Panama City or Cristobal, we squander our hard-earned pay. Raise hell one merry evening, and broke the very next day.
We’re soldiers by occupation, earning our meager pay. Guarding people with millions, for only two forty a day.
The time spent in the army, the things in life we missed. Boy, we hope the draft don’t get you, and for God’s sake don’t enlist.
But there is one consolation, each one of us know well. When we die we’ll go to heaven, for we’ve served our Hitch in Hell.
When we go to heaven, Saint Peter will repeat: “These boys are from Panama, they’ve suffered enough in the heat.”
It’s not that I stopped believing God was out there, or that heaven and hell were real, I was just really mad at Him. Plus I figured if I was going to hell, I might as well go to the deepest part there was. It’s stupid, I know. But that’s the way it was. In my mad sprint from God I did a lot of things that even a “bad Christian” wouldn’t do, and most of it was during my time in the military.
My first time in a plane would have been enough to make any person of reasonable intelligence swear off planes for good, but I never claimed to be too smart and I’m not sure how many people would call me reasonable. I was one of ninety-two men and women cramped into a rusted prop plane that if the truth were known had been made to seat only about seventy. On our first attempt to get airborne we never left the runway. After a lot of shaking and rumbling we were forced to slow down, turn around, and try again. More than half the folks on that plane were green in the gills by the time we saw the skies above Charlotte, NC. I didn’t get sick, but I had my own ways of getting through take off. I kept my eyes closed, my fingers tight on the armrest, and even though I wanted to—and knew I probably should—I fought off the urge to pray.
Somehow that plane managed to land in New Jersey and after a short bus ride, a bunch of us would-be G.I.’s arrived at Fort Dix. Nothing worth mentioning really happened in my short stint at Fort Dix, but it’s where I got my detail, and it’s where I met Mcclain.
Mcclain was a skinny seventeen year-old kid who had lied about his age just to get in the Army. That’s how easy it was back in the fifties. The recruiter would ask your age, you’d say eighteen, and after he eyeballed you for a second or two, if you passed the physical exam you were in. Now in my opinion, Mcclain didn’t look a hair more than sixteen, but he had the mouth of a sailor. I guess it was all that big talk that got him in.
Mcclain and I were assigned to Fort Kobbe, a military base on the pacific entrance of the Caribbean Command in Panama. It was smack dab in the middle of winter when we flew out of New Jersey headed for Panama; two degrees above zero. This meant that we were all in full military issue, winter OD’s. We looked like a bunch of camouflage snowmen, or the little brother in that movie “A Christmas Story” where the mom keeps telling Ralphie that he’ll shoot his eye out. Let’s just say none of us were struggling to stay warm. This was good and bad at the same time. It was good because nobody wanted get sick on their way over seas, and bad because at that same time the temperature in Panama was ninety-eight.
When we touched down we were all drenched with sweat before we even exited the plane. In true military fashion, the officers didn’t care how hot it was, we were forced to stand at attention on that pavement—which felt like lava under our boots—in our full winter uniforms, until every last stick of gear had been cleared from the cargo bay of the plane. It was about forty minutes before they let us remove our overcoats, but not before thirteen of our guys had passed out and were carried off to the med bay on stretchers. I always have and always will respect the military, but there are some things about it that I just simply will never understand. Why those officers forced good men to stand on that runway in full winter gear till they passed out is beyond me.
They were in need of artillery teams at Fort Kobbe, so me and Mcclain were paired up with a couple of other guys and given charge over a few M106 mortar cannons. Now I didn’t know much about mortar cannons, but I’ve always been the type of guy who never believed in doing anything halfway. If you told me to dig a hole to China, I didn’t want to stop till I saw rice paddies. I wanted to be the best at whatever I went after and the military was no exception. Being a Lance Corporal, I was in command of our team and I made sure we were fast and accurate. We could fire one shell high up in the air, quickly lower the cannon, and fire another straight out and the two shells would hit at the same time just a few yards of each other. The shells we used were about the size of a loaf of bread and the charges you placed on the back reminded me of little squares of cheese. Those cannons were amazing. They could fire a shell for five or six miles with a kill radius bigger than twenty-five yards. Of course, being from the wrong side of the tracks in the smallest town in Florida, it probably didn’t take much to impress me.
We were good with those cannons, but we were not perfect. Our regular gun tests were the way we made sure the aiming systems were calibrated correctly. A couple degrees off could mean missing your entire target area when you’re sending a shell five miles out. One time in particular we were putting the guns through their paces with a forward observer calling our coordinates over the radio just a few miles down range and things didn’t go exactly like we wanted. “Willie,” Mcclain said as we prepped gun three. That was what all the guys had taken to calling me. I guess ‘Williamson’ was too long, and nobody ever called you by your first name anyhow. “Jefferson said one of the guns was about three degrees off last time they tested.”
“Which one, Mcclain?” I asked, blowing the sweat off my lip.
“Three or four.”
“Was it three or four, Mcclain?” It was way too big a difference not to worry about, especially with a forward observer down field.
Mcclain stroked his dog tags before tucking them down the neck of his shirt. “Aw hell, Willie I don’t know. Four. It was four.”
“Four,” I said mocking his lack of confidence.
“Four, Willie. Now back off.”
I knew he wasn’t certain, and the look I gave him said as much. But I never was one for arguing. Especially with Mcclain. In a way, he was the closest thing I ever had to a little brother. “Alright, finish gun prep and gimme two charges on the back of that shell. I wanna be ready when we get the call in.” Mcclain moved like molasses over biscuits. I don’t blame him. Gun testing the cannons wasn’t typically all that exciting.
The coordinates came in over the radio and we started cranking. “Ready three,” I said as Mcclain rested the back of the shell on the cannon barrel. “Fire three.” The sound of metal sliding on metal lasted until the charges met the back of the cannon. A thump you could feel in your chest and a puff of smoke later and the shell was sent. There are some sounds you never forget. Somehow they get etched on a list in your mind and no matter how much time passes or in how bad of shape your memory gets, you can always remember those sounds. For me, the sound of an M106 mortar launching three feet from my face is on that list. Mcclain started to light a cigarette as we stood there waiting to hear from the forward observer. We heard from him alright.
“What the hell was that?!?” The FO’s voice came over the radio static and Mcclain went white. “You idiots just blew up my jeep!” Now, it was typical for the FO to sit in his jeep and call out coordinates, but for some reason, today he had decided to stretch his legs. He had parked the jeep a ways off from where he wanted to be, walked about a hundred paces up on a hill side, and had started calling in the coordinates. Imagine his surprise when a M106 mortar shell landed behind him and consumed his jeep in a ball of fire, smoke, and smoldering metal. Apparently he was only a few yards away from the kill zone. I don’t know why he got out of that jeep that day. Maybe it was the Lord, or maybe it was just dumb luck if there is such a thing. I’m just glad he did.
“FO, we got a calibration issue with one of the guns,” I said, holding the radio and staring down Mcclain.
“You’re damn right you do. You almost sent me home in a box.” The FO was hot as a screw in a tin roof in the Florida summer sun. And he had every right to be. “Send someone to come get me outta here.”
“Yessir.” I said setting the radio down.
Mcclain scratched his neck and gave his cigarette another puff. “Like I said, Willie, three’s a little off.” His smile was stupid, but contagious.
“Three, huh,” I said trying not to grin.
A wick, a basin of oil, a few brass prongs, and a glass globe hot enough to light your wall on fire if it was held too close; back when I was young enough to take naps beneath the pews without having to worry about getting pulled up by the ear, those oil lamps were the main source of light in every tiny church house Daddy was asked to preach at. That night, as the fans waved and the tambos were being smacked hard enough to bruise palms, I watched Momma do something I’d never forget.
Filled with the “Spirit”, she danced and sang all the way to the front of the church and with her bare hands, yanked the globe off a lamp that had been burning on a shelf for about three hours. Without missing a beat to the old hymn that was being stomped out from behind the pulpit, she rubbed the red hot glass up and down either side of her face, then turned around and set it right back inside all four of the brass prongs. Nothing; not her face, hands, or anything else on her got burned.
“I don’t believe that!” A big ole boy shouted from the back of the church and the music and singing stopped. He had dirt on his neck and a bright red handkerchief hanging out of the back pocket of his coveralls. Looked like the type of person that really needed to be in church, but would never come on his own accord. About as fast as I think he was capable of walking, he marched down the center aisle over to where that oil lamp was and yanked the globe off.
The crackle and hiss of flesh cooking was immediate. He yelped like a dog being whipped as he struggled to put that globe back in those prongs. I still remember what it smelled like. When he finally pulled his hand off, a perfect handprint of burnt skin stained the glass on that globe. Crying like a baby, he wrapped his hand in that bright red handkerchief, knelt down behind the altar and asked Daddy what he needed to do to be saved.
That was the kind of woman my momma was. She followed her God. Loved Him. And she never stopped.
Summer of 53’ was when Momma first got sick. The cancer started on her chin and worked its way down her neck. She didn’t act like it bothered her much, but eventually, enough neighbors, church members, and even strangers told her she aught to get it looked at and so she did. When she went to the doc. they wasted no time working on her. Her first surgery was almost immediate and it took a hunk out of her chin about the size of a marble and left a big scar down her neck. Looking back, I don’t remember ever really thinking about how the cancer was making Momma feel. What must of went through her mind every time she looked in the mirror and a little bit more of her face was missing. Ironically, I would one day know exactly how she felt, but at the time I was too busy being selfish and thinking about how much Momma’s cancer was bothering me.
See there was nothing worse to me than the cancer that got Momma. She was beautiful, loving, patient, and kind. She didn’t deserve to have little pieces of her cut out bit by bit, but she also didn’t deserve to have black spots of what looked like rot crawling down her face and neck. After her first surgery they gave her a shot of radium that nearly killed her. For three months it was all Momma could do just to lie in bed silently and not moan. I hate cancer and I’ll hate it till the day I die.
The closest I ever came to committing a serious crime was on account of Momma’s cancer. The radiation treatments she needed were going to cost over a thousand dollars; a small fortune for a barefoot family from the wrong side of town. I was seventeen and had been working at the drug store since before I was in high school and old Doc Crews trusted me about as much as he trusted himself. Every Friday he’d have all the store’s money for the week tucked away in the register. No safe, no nothing. And he’d leave it there till the bank opened back up on Monday. There was always close to a couple thousand bucks in there, and I knew that store as good as anything.
The plan was simple. We needed money for Momma’s cancer, and I knew just where to get it. It was around midnight that Friday night. I tucked my pistol in my waistband, and covered my shoes in burlap so they wouldn’t leave any tracks. The lock on the back door was simple to jimmy of you were handy with a pry bar, and of course I was.
I parked my car a hundred or so yards away from the store and walked the last little bit. The light over the back door flickered a dim yellow and buzzed faintly like somebody was getting a haircut with a fancy electric razor in the next building over.
Steps muffled by the rough burlap, hands trembling over the pry bar, I could barely see what I was doing for all the tears. I’d been to church my whole life. I knew what the good book said about stealing. If Momma knew how I got this money she would never accept it. Sick or no, she’d pull me by the ear march me down here and make me give it back if she had to. And if she asked me straight, there’s no way I could lie to her.
As I edged the pry bar against the door I couldn’t take it anymore. Sniffling and crying I whispered to the cracked paint on the door. “I’m sorry Momma, I can’t do it. I just can’t.”
“Reverend, is that you?” A voice weathered and thin shouted overhead. Miss Anderson, an old widow who lived in an apartment above the drugstore, was having trouble sleeping and had heard me fiddling with the lock.
“It’s me, Miss Anderson,” I said back, half petrified by the fact that she had recognized me. “I was just checking to make sure the back door was locked.”
I cried the whole damp walk back to my car. Had I went through with it, I would have got caught. No question. And no matter what the reason, I would have been labeled a thief for a long time.
A week later, some of the rich folks that Daddy had done a lot of woodwork for found out about Momma’s cancer. They got together in one of there rich folk parties and raised the money for Momma’s radiation. Proud as he was, Daddy eventually took the money. He loved Momma about more than anything.
Even though the radiation was paid for, Daddy spent most of that time gone on account of the rest of the hospital bills. With Momma not able to wash clothes and me staying home more to help keep the house going, if Daddy didn’t do more working us kids would have to do less eating. My older sister Mable and me did most of the cooking and cleaning while Mary, being barely a teenager, looked after Momma. I knew how to fry chicken and potatoes, and boil beans because Momma had showed me. The older kids had long since left the house. Marvin was in the military and Leeroy—his given name was Leeroy Vincent but we all just called him L.V.—had started running a bulldozer and preaching the gospel, while Clifford and Lydia were God knows where. We were a family of five, and our momma was dying of cancer.
The fried chicken and boiled beans carried us through the winter, but in the spring of 54’ Momma started coughing up blood. Even as kids, no one had to tell us that Momma was in bad shape. Once or twice I leaned my head against the door to Momma’s room and I could hear her praying for God to heal her. She wasn’t selfish like me though. She’d stay knelt at her bedside for longer than I thought she should in her condition, and she’d pray for Daddy and us kids, and anyone else she could think of that needed something from the Lord. It must have been so hard for her to get up and down off her knees every day only to keep getting worse.
“You want to pray with me, Reverend?” She said once when I had let the door creep open a little too far.
“No Momma,” I choked out. “Just checking on you is all.”
Momma smiled. “You’re a fine young man, Reverend. I’m blessed to have such fine children.” Her voice was still just as smooth as a pretty girl’s cheek. The smile never left her face as she kept praying. I didn’t watch for too long though. It’s hard to see much when you’re crying.
The year I was to graduate high school was the year we took Momma to a specialist doctor in Tampa. That hospital was the biggest building I had ever stepped foot in. Whitewashed and smelling like medicine and bleach with room after room of people either getting better or dying; I wanted to leave the moment we got there. The specialist was tall and lean with a full head of hair, and younger than I thought he should have been. He was older than me of course, but younger than Daddy and too young to know so much about cutting the cancer out of my momma. But that was just my opinion.
“Your cancer is the creepy crawly kind, Mrs. Williamson,” the specialist said to Momma as Daddy stared at him stone-faced. Daddy hadn’t gotten more than a couple years of formal education so it must have been strange for him to hear another man talk so easily about what was killing his wife. “Our tests show that it has moved into your lungs and is spreading aggressively towards your brain. Now that’s what we are most concerned with. Brain cancer must be dealt with very carefully and as soon as possible. Every minute we wait is another minute it gets closer to becoming inoperable.” He paused and read Daddy’s face. “If we wait too long, the cancer could spread to the places we can’t cut on without endangering Gracie’s life.”
Momma nodded her head while the specialist kept talking, but her lips never stopped their subtle moving. She was praying. “When do we need to have the surgery?” Daddy finally broke his silence.
The specialist leaned back in his chair, tapping his pen against some papers on his desk. “I’d say this Sunday, if at all possible. But we’ll need to keep her here until then for observation.” It was Monday.
Hospital or home, dying or not, Momma was still Momma. She spent most of that week talking about three things: How good God was, how much she wanted to see all of her seven children before she had the operation, and how upset she was that they were gonna have to shave her head for the surgery. Momma was from the old school, and old school Pentecostal God-fearing women didn’t cut their hair. No sir. They wore it in a bun.
The days went by and Momma waited, never doubting. The night before the operation I watched as one by one, my older brothers and sisters came in to see Momma. My momma did a whole lot of smiling and a whole lot of crying that night.
When it was just me and Momma, she pulled me over to the bedside and hugged me up close with as much strength as I figure she could manage. “You follow the Lord, Reverend. You go where he leads, and do what he tells you. God has a plan for you, Reverend.”
“Yes, Momma,” I said somehow keeping it all together as she rubbed a thin hand up and down my sleeve.
“Now go get your daddy,” she said when she finally let me go.
The next morning, as the nurses were preparing momma for the surgery, she left this world. She died in the bathroom in a polka dot hospital gown just minutes before they were gonna shave her hair off, and she was buried in a long dress with every last hair still wrapped in a perfect bun on the top of her head. Cancer scars or no, Momma was still beautiful. The funeral was almost exactly one month before I graduated high school.
I had no intention of making good on the promise I made to Momma that night. Why should I follow a God who could take my momma away from me without even letting her see me graduate? A God who could heal me from polio before I had even done anything to deserve it, but wouldn’t heal my momma who had been a saint her whole life, well that wasn’t the kind of God I could understand. And sure as heck wasn’t a God I wanted to follow. I had heard scriptures talking about rain falling on the just and the unjust alike, but I didn’t care. That was my momma that I watched die for a year one piece at a time as she coughed up blood and prayed for healing. Needless to say I was mad.
After I graduated, I ran from the God that let my momma die. I ran as far away from Him as I thought possible. A place where I could be told exactly what to do, and when to do it, and could wash away any thoughts about Momma and God with push ups and stiff liquor.
“Boy, I guess I outta hug you,” Daddy said as I stood with my green military duffle bag over my shoulder taking my first steps toward the train. To say he was a loving man would have been just stupid. Daddy was hard. At times it even felt like he was a special kind of hard on me. I remember when I was a little boy pretending to be asleep at the end of revival services just so he would have to pick me up and carry me out. He had never hugged me before. So as I turned around and he got closer I kept trying to imagine just how awkward this was going to be. A man doing something he hadn’t done often, just because he figured it was appropriate, stiffly and unnaturally fumbling through the motions of something foreign… forgotten.
Daddy’s hug was none of those things. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes till he couldn’t anymore. Then he wrapped his arms around me. I was bigger than Daddy, but I remember feeling small in his arms. It wasn’t a long hug, but Daddy meant every second of it. The feeling of it lingered a good while after it was over. In fact, I swear I felt it for most of that train ride to Charlotte, North Carolina.
I was thirteen before I got my first pair of shoes. Old Doc Crews ran the drugstore in town and wouldn’t let me work for him without shoes on my feet. I can’t say that I blame him. I had been leading the family cow back and forth to school for several years by then and my feet would blister something awful in the summer, and crack open and bleed in the winter time. They were probably the last thing anyone wanted to look at when deciding whether to buy a coke or a dime’s worth of candy at the drugstore. The shoes I got weren’t fancy or anything; just leather, sole, and strings, but they were mine. Paid for with my own money.
You see working for Doc Crews at the drugstore wasn’t my first job, though he did sort of give me my start. On a Saturday, back when I was eight years old, Momma gave me a shiny new dime. “Reverend,” she said with excitement, the way someone does when they finally get to do something they’ve had their heart set on for a while. “I want you to take this dime, run on down into town and get whatever you want from the drugstore. I know Ole’ Doc Crews keeps a whole bunch a candy in his store.”
It was about a mile into town, but it felt like nothing to my bare feet. I just kept thinking about that candy. As I ran down the dirt road I squeezed the dime in my hand so tight it made an impression of that dead president’s face on the inside of my palm. There was a little bit of a line when I first got to the store, so I tried to be patient as I waited my turn. When it was time, I stepped up to the counter with my dime stretched out in front of me like it was some trophy fish I’d just caught.
Doc Crews took a second to look me over. “That’s a fine looking dime you got there, Reverend. What can I get you?”
“I wanna b-buy some c-candy.” Short and to the point, just like any other eight year-old with the attention span of a gnat. I had a bit of a stuttering problem back then so the less I said the better.
That’s when Doc Crews said something that would change the course of my adolescence for good. To this day I don’t know why he said it, but I’m sure glad he did. “Reverend, you’re a businessman.” Me. An eight year-old who just came into the store wanting to buy a dime’s worth of candy. I did my best to cock an eyebrow at him but he kept on talking. “Now you could spend that dime on some candy, and I’d be happy to sell it to you, but you know what I think? You see them peanuts over there next to those brown paper sacks? I think you’d rather buy as many of those peanuts and sacks as that dime can get you, run on home and have your momma boil them up real good, and then run back here to town and see how many of those bags of peanuts you can sell.”
I thought about what he said and quickly realized that he was wrong. That wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. Sounded like a whole lot of running just to watch someone else eat my peanuts. But I did like boiled peanuts about as much as I liked candy. After a bit of figuring, I decided to go ahead and do like Doc suggested. I brought the peanuts home and Momma boiled and bagged them. When she was done I ran back to town to see how many bags I could sell.
Two hours after I had first walked into Doc’s place with nothing but a dime and some candy on the brain, I came back in. I didn’t have any peanuts. Instead I had a buck fifty in my pocket and an ear-to-ear grin.
I showed Doc the money. “That’s good Reverend. Go ahead and take fifty cents and put it back. You never want to spend all the money you make. Now that dollar you got left is yours to spend on whatever you want. That’ll buy a heck of a lot more candy than that dime you came in here with now won’t it?” He flipped his towel over his shoulder and leaned against the counter. “So what’ll it be?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “More p-peanuts p-please.”
Doc smiled. “See Reverend, I knew you were a businessman.”
That Saturday and every Saturday till I was thirteen years old, I sold boiled peanuts and shined shoes in the town square outside of Doc’s drugstore. Not to mention the men waiting in line for a shoeshine used to pitch quarters at me and tell me to talk on account of my stuttering problem. I didn’t stutter just some of the time, I stuttered all the time, and boy did those men at the shoeshine get a kick out of hearing it. “Hey boy,” they’d say as I polished the toe box of a nice black business shoe to a mirror shine. “Say somethin’.”
I didn’t have to say much. In fact, most of the time it sounded a lot like this. “Wh-wha-whatcha-a-a wa-wa- want- m-me- st-t-t-to s-say?” Something like that would earn me a dollar or two in quarters depending on how many people were standing around. That wasn’t bad considering the average grown man was only bringing in about fifteen dollars a week at that time.
I didn’t mind being laughed at as long as they were paying. At ten I was making a grown man’s wage and by the time I started working for Doc Crews, I was making double, even though nobody paid me to talk anymore. You see I quit stuttering. Just like Momma knew I would. You can’t have a stuttering problem and be a preacher.
The drugstore used to be the coolest hangout place before and after the picture shows, and at thirteen, Doc Crews used to leave me in charge a couple days a week. Looking back, I don’t know if that was the smartest decision he ever made, but he was the doctor and I was just a dirt poor preacher’s kid who used to run around barefoot everywhere so who was I to judge.
I used my drugstore money to buy Momma a washing machine. It was 119 dollars from Sears and Roebuck. It was so shiny and new, it looked like a time machine or at least something from the future when the deliverymen set it down off the truck. When we got it set up and running all I could do was smile, and all Momma could do was cry. She had been the one putting my money back for me while I’d been working, probably thinking I was saving it up for myself. But what was a thirteen-year-old gonna buy with 119 dollars? Momma didn’t want me to buy her anything, even though washing clothes was how she made her living, and she could do way more washing with way less work with the machine.
Every time I bought her something it seemed to make Daddy angry, and sooner or later I’d catch a whoopin’ for something I’d done wrong. I don’t think he was mad at Momma, or me, I just reckon that every time I did something for Momma that he couldn’t, it made him feel kind of small. And at 5 foot 9 inches and a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet, I can’t say as I blame him too much for being upset about it. I guess he wanted to be the one who bought Momma her first washing machine.
The drugstore was a good moneymaking gig for me so I kept working there right on through high school. Working the register, restocking shelves, running the loiterers—most of whom were older than me—out when it was closing time, there wasn’t anything needed doing that I couldn’t handle, and since most of my friends would hang out at the drugstore after school anyhow, it was like I was getting paid to be somewhere that I would have come for free.
The money helped me buy school clothes for Mary and me, so neither of us had to wear tater sack shirts again, and at fourteen I had saved up enough money to buy my first car. It was a 38 Ford that I had bought for fifty dollars. How should I describe it? The best way would be to say it was a fourteen-year-old rust bucket that was a bump or two away from the scrapyard. To get it home we had to chain it to the family Chevy. Daddy got in and steered the Ford while I pulled it with the Chevy. I was being real careful, trying to keep an eye on Daddy in the rearview while watching the road.
About halfway home Daddy started waving and swatting his arms back and forth kind of wild-like. I thought it meant that he wanted me to speed up, so I did, but he kept on waving. The faster I went the more he waved. By the time we got to the house Daddy dove out the door before the car even stopped rolling. I was pretty darn confused until I found out there was a wasp nest about the size of a softball beneath the hood of that 38 Ford. The second we started pulling it the wasps came alive, and as we say in the south, Daddy got ate up. I thought he was gonna whoop me for sure, but he didn’t. He was stung all over and couldn’t stop laughing if he tried. Mary said it had to be the Lord. It was one of the few times I remember ever seeing Daddy laugh.
A good job, a running car, new clothes, and a few friends, was good living for a poor boy born on the wrong side of the tracks. Needless to say, I started to think that I was something special. When I made a joke and someone didn’t laugh, I figured they must not have a good sense of humor. And when a girl acted like she wasn’t interested in me, I wondered why. I guess that’s what got me in trouble with Francine.
Francine was a looker. The kind of girl that knew what to do with what she had. She would come into the drugstore a couple times a week sporting a low cut button-down blouse and one of them poodle skirts with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, order a coke with a straw and sit and sip it while I tried to make small talk. She could ignore me like she was getting paid for it, and it tore me up. It’s probably why it came as such a genuine shock when finally spoke to me that one afternoon.
“So are you gonna ask me out or what, Rev?” She said, blowing bubbles with the straw in her drink as I wiped down the counter.
I stopped wiping and threw the towel over my shoulder, supporting myself against the counter like I had seen Doc Crews do so many times. Back then I thought it made him look like he knew what he was talking about. I probably looked stupid. “Is that what you want? Me to ask you out?”
“Why do you think I come in her all the time, dummy?” She slapped the counter and leaned forward. I could tell she was trying to embarrass me. She knew how low that shirt of hers was cut.
I never looked down. I couldn’t let her feel like she was in control any more than she already was. Instead, I focused on a rich brown curl in her ponytail and watched it bounce over her shoulder as we kept talking. “I thought you coming here all the time was because you like soda pop about as much as you like ignoring me.”
She almost spit her coke, wiping the corners of her mouth before she answered. “You really are clueless aren’t you?”
It was hard to keep on like I was mad, the way she was staring at me with something between meanness and curiosity in her eyes. She sure was pretty. “Do you want me to ask you out or not?” I flung the towel off my shoulder and smacked it against the counter.
Right then was the first time she really smiled. I mean there was a difference between a smirk and a smile, and finally, something I said had earned the real thing. “What time you get off?” She asked twisting in the stool from side to side.
There wasn’t hardly anyone else in the store, just a couple finishing up a float, Francine, and me. It was almost closing time anyhow. “As soon as I can get everyone out and the floor swept.”
“Meet me round back and you can walk me to your car,” she said spinning the stool around as she hopped off, skirt bouncing with each step.
“Are you asking me out now?”
“Yes, Rev,” she said with her back against the glass door. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.” She slid out the door and skipped past the windows of the storefront.
I didn’t have a mind to make her wait long. I had the store shut down and the whole floor swept before the couple had finished their float. There was even that awkward bit of time where I kind of stared at them, holding my broom, waiting to sweep the area beneath their table. By the time they got up to leave I was right behind them, turning off the lights and flipping the sign to say ‘closed’ on the glass door.
I got around to the back of the drugstore and Francine was waiting on me. She was leaning against the building; one leg propped up, skirt waving just above her knees, lighting a cigarette. The right breeze would have shone off more of her leg than would have been proper, but she didn’t look like she cared. She was like a picture in a magazine. There should be some kind of caption beneath her feet trying to sell you something. “Where are you parked?” She asked.
“Down by the tracks,” I said, in my deepest, coolest voice.
“Let’s go then,” she said taking a long draw from her cigarette and handing it to me. When I tried to wave it off she stopped walking. “Rev, I didn’t think you were so square.”
Now I had never tried a cigarette before and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to, but I knew I wanted Francine to like me and a girl like her wouldn’t think too much anyone she figured was square. I grabbed the cigarette from her fingers—there was something about the marks of her lipstick on the end that I liked—and took as deep a draw as I could before giving it back to her.
There are few choices in my life that I instantly regretted. Taking that cigarette was one of them. She barely took the thing from my hands before I started coughing. I coughed and coughed like I had tried to swallow a spoon full of cinnamon. Francine started laughing and mocking me in that way girls do, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t breathe, and sooner or later, I started to feel queasy. I didn’t have a mirror but I would bet the fifty dollars I spent on my Ford that my face was as green as sour apple candy.
“You all right, Rev?” Francine asked when she realized I was truly struggling. I couldn’t answer her. I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was stare at the ground between my feet and cough and cough until I finally threw up.
My first date with Francine was a short one. She stood over me in that button-down blouse and poodle skirt and patted my back as I vomited all over my leather shoes. When I was done being sick, we finished the walk to my car, I drove her home, and that was that. We didn’t say much. Francine didn’t even tease me about getting sick. I guess it was easy to see that I wasn’t in the mood for cutting up. I figured out a couple things that day. I didn’t like cigarettes, and I wasn’t too sure that I liked Francine much either. But that wasn’t the last cigarette I ever had, that wasn’t the last date me and Francine would ever go on, and that wouldn’t be the last time I left a place with vomit all over my shoes. Life’s just funny like that sometimes.
“Reverend!” It was Daddy’s voice I heard while I was under the orange trees and I was sure of it. Twelve years old and I still didn’t have a single pair of shoes, but I knew my daddy’s voice. And I knew better than to be late whenever he called me.
“Sir,” I hollered at the top of my lungs as I ran back to the house wincing at the twigs and gravels that dug into my feet. I was always grateful to reach the porch, especially on the hotter days.
Momma had just taken a bunch of clothes off the line and was sitting down to fold them. The basket looked bigger than her. “Where’s daddy?” I asked pulling the door to behind me.
“He’s workin’, Reverend.” She was the absolute vision of patience and understanding. Back then, Daddy built houses and preached the gospel. Which meant that in order to keep the ends meeting every month, he built a lot of houses. Preaching the gospel in hot and sweaty tent revivals through all hours of the night didn’t really put too much bread on the table. But that’s where all the meaningful stuff actually happened to hear Daddy talk about it.
“I heard him call me from outside,” I said about as confused as I imagine a twelve year old could be.
“Even if you did, doesn’t change the fact that he’s not here, son.” She never looked up from the pair of long john underwear she was folding in her pink hands.
The sun was already low and I didn’t want to waste my playtime trying to figure out what had happened so I just went back outside and raced to my spot beneath the orange trees. I had made a pretty good pistol out of this twig I found that had just enough of a bend in it to be a decent handle. I even peeled back a sniff of bark at the end to make a fairly recognizable sight. Many an hour was spent with me ducking behind orange trees pretending to have a shoot out with bandits or Indians. Sometimes my little boy war games were made even more interesting when the crop dusters would fly over the grove coating the trees with pesticides. Playing in the chemical-doused orange trees as a boy would one day have devastating effects on me, but back then, all I was concerned with was becoming a darn good shot with that wooden twig gun. And I was.
Back in the grove, the imaginary natives had taken over a couple of key positions that I had fought hard for. My trip to the house had set me back in my efforts to liberate the orange trees. After roll dodging a few arrows I managed to take out a couple of young warriors who had encamped beneath one of the closer orange trees. One fell to a well-placed shot from my wooden revolver while the other leapt at me with his tomahawk. With no time to think I took the tomahawk to my forearm before clubbing the warrior in the back of the neck with the butt of my twig revolver. I let out a whelp and ducked behind the orange tree I had just reclaimed, watching for stray arrows, and all the while clutching my forearm in a rather convincing display of fake pain. I didn’t know how to make a good tourniquet, so pretty soon I was gonna be in a heap of trouble. Right about then is when I heard it again.
“Reverend!” It was Daddy’s voice all right, all throat and thunder, but clear as crystal. The call had come from the direction of the house. He must have come home early and momma just didn’t know. She wouldn’t play a trick on me like that. Momma would never let a lie come out of her mouth about anything; she was the absolute worst when came to surprise parties and such. Momma just couldn’t keep a secret.
I stood up and answered again, before starting another barefoot run to the house. It was hard not to be angry. I was giving it everything I had against the imaginary Indians and these interruptions were costing me big time. At least I could find out from Daddy how to make a good tourniquet.
The spring on the screen door squealed as I opened it up again and barged into the living room. “Yessir,” I said after a couple breaths. If I didn’t look winded from how fast I tried to get there when Daddy called, I might be in trouble. Daddy was a good man, but he was hard as nails. Especially about us kids. I remember this one time when my little sister, Mary, begged and begged to say the grace around the dinner table. It was all she talked about from the moment we got home from school. When dinner was on we all bowed our heads and waited for her blessing. I’ll never forget what happened.
“Dear Jesus,” Mary said with her face hidden behind steepled fingers. “Come up from that crack, bless this food and go right back.” You could hear the crickets and frogs outside for all the noise anyone made when she finished. Nobody moved, I was barely even breathing. Apparently she had heard that silly prayer from a friend at school and thought it would be cute. The whole stunt went over like a lead balloon. Everyone waited to see what Daddy was gonna do, but nobody saw the slap coming. Especially Mary. I felt sorry for her as Daddy’s red handprint started forming on her face. That slap would have loosened my jaws.
“Now say the grace,” Daddy said and Mary sniffled out another blessing.
Back in the living room, I waited to hear Daddy’s footsteps on the wood floor. Listened close to find out which room he was in. Momma was in the backyard songbirding a gospel hymn, and Mary, my baby sister, was braiding the hair of a straw doll all the while whispering about how mean her brothers were, but no Daddy. No footsteps, no intimidating deep voice. “Yessir!” I said again, this time it would have qualified as a holler in anybody’s book. If I wasn’t getting a whoopin’ before, I definitely was now. Daddy didn’t allow yelling in the house.
“Reverend!” It was momma. She had come in from outside, another basket of clothes on her hip. “What are you doing hollering in the house?”
She was confused but so was I. I knew Daddy had called me, and no one could tell me different. Not even momma. “I heard Daddy call me again, momma. I know it was him. He called me by name.”
Momma just stood there with the basket on her hip looking me in the eye. I knew that look. She was trying to decide whether or not I was lying. I wasn’t, but if she made up her mind that I was, I’d soon be wishing I had just stayed in the orange trees and met my fate with the imaginary Indians.
After a long sigh, she set the basket down. “Come here,” she said, soft like cotton from the wash. I came close and she draped an arm across the shoulders of the tater sack shirt I was wearing. There was nothing that momma couldn’t use for something. “Your daddy didn’t call you, Reverend. He’s gone workin’ and won’t be back for a time. What you heard was the call of the Lord.”
“Huh?” I didn’t know what Momma was talking about, but I knew if she was saying it then she believed it. She sat me down on her knee and told me a story in the bible where a young boy named Samuel lived with a prophet and God woke him up out of sleep by calling his name. Three times the Lord called the boy’s name and each time Samuel woke the prophet up to see what he wanted. After the second time, the prophet knew it was God calling Samuel and he told the boy that if he heard the voice again, to ask the Lord what he wanted.
When Momma finished I was just as confused as when she started. “This just means you’re gonna be a preacher, Reverend,” she added after reading the confusion on my face. The call of the Lord? Sounded about as real as the Indians in the orange trees. Those darn Indians. By now they would have surely taken over the entire grove. I was twelve, and all that meant was I was old enough to understand that there were some things I just didn’t understand. Besides that, the sun was setting and there wouldn’t be enough light beneath the trees to pull off any shots with my twig gun, so the conquest of the grove would have to wait till tomorrow.
“Now you’re gonna fold these clothes for your momma, on account of your yelling through the house while I call your brothers inside and get started lighting the lamps.” She stood up, straightened her apron, and patted me on the shoulders as she went to the screen door. She didn’t seem at all angry with me. If anything she was pleased and almost smiling about something that only she knew about.
As I folded a pair of britches that I didn’t recognize, I thought about what Momma said for as long as my twelve-year-old attention span would allow. The call of the Lord. I didn’t know about being no preacher, but one thing I knew for sure. The next time the Lord called my name while I was in the orange grove, I was gonna ask him to help me fight the Indians.
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.
I am lonely, and I want you to stay with me.
Okay wait, that’s a lie.
I don’t care where you go, or what you do, so long as you don’t finish.
I’m sorry, please allow me to introduce myself.
I go by many names.
Fear. Laziness. Doubt. Anxiety.
I am the anthem of the coward.
And the banner of the sloth.
To the underachiever I am a warm familiar blanket.
I remain as always a trusted ally to the victim.
And should you ever need me,
You can always find me in the same place.
The Halfway Hotel.
Halfway is the midpoint between all things.
It is my home. And it’s where I’ll keep you if you let me.
Halfway is the most perfect spot in the world.
Why would you want to go anywhere else?
Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you.
Halfway to success is also Halfway to failure.
If you only do half of a thing,
You don’t have to lift single a finger,
Or take another step,
All you have to do is quit.
Just stop. Do nothing.
Doesn’t that sound perfect?
Halfway to excellence, is also Halfway to mediocrity.
You’re not the type of person who desires recognition.
Leave that to the egomaniacs and narcissists.
You are a much better spectator than a performer.
No expectations. No limelight. And no accomplishments.
A life free from the reprehensible burden of reflecting on past achievements.
Doesn’t that sound ideal?
I told you Halfway is perfect.
Halfway to brilliance is also Halfway to stupidity.
There’s freedom in always being able to say, “I don’t know.”
Whenever someone asks something important.
You don’t want to sound like a know-it-all. Do you?
Ignorance is bliss, remember?
You’ll find all the ignorance you want.
Right here at Halfway.
Halfway is waiting for you.
I’ve got a spot warmed up and ready to welcome you.
Comfort and rest can be yours.
Whatever you’re trying to do,
Stop chasing the rigorous nightmare of success and brilliance.
Frothing at the mouth over excellence and accomplishment.
Stand still and daydream with me for a while.
About the safety of anonymity.
The comfort of mediocrity.
And the simplicity of stupidity.
Join me in the coliseum of the defeated.
Don’t you dare keep moving towards success.
Trudging on the trail that leads to your dreams.
That road is difficult.
That road requires sacrifice.
And I won’t let you go without a fight.
I’ll turn potholes in the pavement,
Into chasms and canyons,
When success lies just beyond your fingertips,
I’ll convince you that it’s miles out of reach.
So if you’re thinking of leaving.
Don’t accomplish your goals.
Don’t cross the finish line on your dreams,
Through sweat-laden struggle and effort.
Stay with me and we can watch,
With furtive glances behind tinted windows
As someone else takes hold of the life you’ve hoped for.
And lays claim to the dream that once was yours.
There’s always a vacancy.
Here at the Halfway Hotel.
We can fill it together.
With a lifetime of regrets,
And opportunities lost,
And time… wasted.