It was 1939 in Texas, and I was four years old. We lived in a small white house that my
parents had bought for $1000 in 1935, the year I was born. It was a nice neighborhood except for one little thing...
I was scared to death of Mr. Wheeler!
Every morning my mom dressed my brother and me while my dad drank his coffee in the kitchen, and then he would kiss her goodbye and give all of us a gentle pat on the bottom as he headed for the door. His hat was always on the hook next to the door, and it went on his head before he would step outside. (All the men I ever saw outside wore hats.) After he left, the three of us would have breakfast in the kitchen, and then it was time to put me outside on the front porch with my toys. Danny was on the floor in the living room where I could see him through the screen door.
Our front yard had a big mulberry tree that provided shade; however, there was little grass. The red clay soil was good for growing cotton, but not much of anything else. I liked to dig in it, though. I had a large kitchen spoon that was my shovel and had made three very nice holes where I put some of my toys. Hey, those holes were mine! The sidewalk was only a few steps from my play area, but I wasn't supposed to go that far. The edge of that sidewalk was my boundary. That's where I first saw Mister Wheeler. On the sidewalk in front of our house.
Across the street, there was a family with three kids: the oldest was Helen, a girl about 12, and she had two younger brothers, the youngest perhaps a little older than me. He and his brother, who was about six, would wave to me when I came outside, but we were never allowed to cross the street to play with each other. I was probably lucky that I couldn't go over there, because both of them were bigger than me, and the oldest one liked to hit his little brother. It seemed like every day I would hear the younger one crying for his mom. Most likely either of them would have made me run for home.
About mid-morning Mister Wheeler would come down the sidewalk on my side of the street, walking slowly with a black cane to steady himself. He lived alone, perhaps four houses away, and was on his way to the small market around the corner where there was a domino parlor upstairs. He never said anything to me, but he kept a careful eye on me just the same. One day I had the neighbor's puppy by the tail, and Mister Wheeler stopped and looked at me. When he raised that black cane a few inches toward me, I quickly released the whining pup and scrambled up on the porch. Lesson learned.
Late in the afternoon I would see Mister Wheeler again, but he always walked on the other side of the street when he was going home until he reached the point where he needed to cross over to his house. Even so, I would make sure I was on my porch when he went by.
The day I remember best, though, was a summer afternoon late in the day when Mister Wheeler came around the corner on the other side of the street, walking slowly and enjoying the sun. The two boys were across the street in their yard and the younger one was crying because his brother was throwing red clay mud on him. Mister Wheeler continued his slow pace toward them while I quickly moved up onto the porch, keeping a careful eye on the old man. As I watched, he suddenly grabbed the older boy's arm and in a swift physical staccato administered several stinging strikes to his rear end. As soon as the boy was released he ran, howling, to his front door. His little brother watched with large eyes and stopped crying, and then also ran up the front steps, while I hid behind our porch chairs.
I will never, ever, forget what happened next... the door opened and the boys mother stepped outside. Both boys ran to her and clung at her side as she called in a very loud voice, "Mister Wheeler!" The moment lingered in the warm afternoon while all of us looked at the old man on the sidewalk.
Mister Wheeler stopped, turned his head towards the three of them, and slowly said, "Yes?"
That was Texas in 1939.
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