Winter Haven, Florida ~ Spring, 1967
Bob and I rolled out of bed each mornin'before sunrise. Work called us, or mayhaps it was the call of "learnin' time".
Actually, Bob's grandmother shook our heels or shoulders, whatever it took to cause a couple of boys-wantin'ta'be men to rise and work. We learned to rise no matter what pain or desire to sleep kept us a-bed.
We learned to rise after six hours sleep and a night of eating and drinking and tellin' lies. We learned to pace our slow selves to the thick air and insects, knowing that 12 hours is a long stretch in any man's book.
We learned to shut-the-fuck-up.....
We began to listen.
Buck and his soft and powerful smile began to translate into a soft and powerful voice. He spoke and the rest of us listened. It didn't matter that we were "naw'there'ren white boyiz".
It didn't matter that the rest of the crew were Southern blacks. We all listened to Buck during the "learnin time"..........Or, as I recall the dialect...."lar'nin' time.
After two weeks of 12 hours on - 12 hours off and one day of rest....Bob and I hurt. The old black men kept working while we wanted to take a day off and rest. Buck smiled and we learned. We learned that men worked, not just for themselves, but for their families, for their community, for their nation.
Let me repeat that:
We learned that men...TRUE MEN... worked, not just for themselves, but for their families, for their community, for their nation!
It wasn't about race or creed or color. These old men were far past that. It was about making their way, making a living in an unjust and wicked world.
One chilly, misty morning, Buck stopped at one of the nameless little stores where we all piled out of the bus to buy our RC cola and Moon Pies and tobacco. Something seemed different.
Buck was wary, his smile, hesitant. The normal silence was draped in expectancy....in darkness.
When we arrived at the work site....which, to Bob and I, was just another nameless block of citrus groves in the midst of a fathomless sea of citrus, we were met by the County Sheriff and the Florida State Patrol.
Buck unfolded his huge body and stood....waiting. A grey uniformed hulk of a State Patrol Sargent came over with a folder. He shook hands like he and Buck were old friends. Then he spoke quietly, pointed to the grove as more police and the coroner's wagon arrived. Buck nodded. Then he shook his head, his shoulders slumped and his massive head fell forward. Sadness......grief......That is what I remember.
Buck shuffled back to the bus, shoulders hunched, his black cheeks glistened with tears.
"Thar's'a bin a killin." His deep voice broke. " Sum'un's kilt a young gal'n' her lover. Dey drug'um out'cheer and dump'um in'a citra'grove....all bloody like. Y'all, we cain' werk he'yah t'aday. They want's a preecher and I be the one de' law knows. I gots'ta stay and woik wif the sher'riff. Y'all go'wan back t'da ya'ward. Jack, y'all take da bus."
Buck was a Christian pastor!
Jack, the man who had proffered me the chewing tobac, hopped out and crawled into the driver's seat. He drove us back to the yard in utter silence.
I was still dumbstruck....Buck was a pastor!
Later in the week, I spoke with Buck during our lunch..our "lar'nin time." I asked him about his education, how he came to be a preacher and why he was working the citrus groves.
He stared at me, his eyes glowed like black coals.......silent. Buck sighed. He took a long drink from his jug of sweet tea. Then Buck leaned back against the orange tree and began his tale.
He told me that he was damn near 80 years old, born sometime in the 1880's. There was no record, no certificate. He remembered his grandparents who were house slaves, freed by "Massa'Lincoln". They stayed on the plantation to serve their own patron, their Christian master. They both taught Buck to memorize the bible. Every night they would sit and recite chapter and verse. Every night, month after month, year after year....they would sit in the firelight and recite God's word as their own preacher had taught them.
Not one of them could read or write, not Buck, not his parents, not his grandparents. But they knew every word and phrase in the Holy Bible. It was their hope and their gift from God and their earthly master. It was the promise of a better life. He memorized the whole book and learned to preach.
Buck, then in his twenties, took over preaching when his mentor died . He worked with the Baptist Church. His Strong, deep voice and massive stature gained him a large following. Big gals, small gals.....some with heavy breasts, some with sweet fannies, some with kitchen skills.....some with other skills....all of them smiled and wooed him. Clever men taught him about drink and smoke. He fell and rose and fell again.
He married one strong, no-nonsense gal who had waited, watching him from the shadows. Then the war came and Buck went to serve his country. He learned to sign his name and read and write enough to make his way. And he learned about hate and murder. And he learned that his "churchin' " was Christ working to keep him safe.
Buck came home and raised his family. They were all gone now, his wife dead, his children gone north to work in factories. He knew the law and the politicians around Winter Haven. And they all knew and respected himHe worked because he had to. There was no Social Security for Buck...or for many of the elderly blacks. They were "non-persons" as far as the Federal Government was concerned. They simply, and conveniently, did not exist.
Buck told me that God wanted him to stay in Florida. God wanted him to reach out. He told me that he "knew" when Bob and I showed up, that he was "s'posed'ta teech us'bout Gawd."
And that, beloved, is just what that old man did.